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Empathy vs. sympathy: definitions and differences

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Better Place Forests creates and maintains conservation memorial forests for people who choose cremation and don’t want their ashes to end up in a traditional cemetery.

Empathy and sympathy are two words we hear frequently when people speak about grief and loss. Both words have to do with how we relate to other people’s emotions and experiences, and while they have similar meanings, each has a slightly different definition. Understanding how these words differ can help us navigate our own feelings and support others who are going through grief and loss.

Empathy vs. sympathy definitions

Sympathy is when we share someone else’s sadness. “Sym” comes from the Greek for “with” — when you feel sympathy, you’re feeling “with” someone. That’s why condolence cards often bear the message “with sympathy.” This phrase shows that you’re thinking of someone and sharing in their sadness.

Empathy is the ability to understand and even feel someone else’s emotions. It’s about putting yourself in someone’s shoes. You might not have been in the exact situation they’re in, but you can empathize by listening to their experience and acknowledging their emotions. It’s not about trying to fix things but about sending a message that you hear what someone’s going through and helping them feel like they’re not alone.

How is sympathy different from empathy?

When you show sympathy, you’re viewing another person’s emotions from your own perspective and through your own lens of feeling and experience. On the other hand, when you feel empathy, you’re centering on the other person’s emotions, seeking to understand exactly what it is they’re feeling.

Sympathy is an emotional reaction — it’s something you feel — while empathy is more active. You can practice empathy to help someone get through a hard time by listening, holding space, and recognizing what they’re going through.

When should you express empathy vs. sympathy?

Whether you express empathy, sympathy, or both, depends on the situation and your relationship with the person. When someone’s grieving, they often need both sympathy and empathy but perhaps from different people.

If you’re not very close with someone, then often the most appropriate thing is to offer your sympathies. This might be through a condolence card or a short message. This is a nice gesture to show that they’re in your thoughts.

If it’s someone you’re closer to, showing empathy can help them through a difficult time. You can practice empathy by being there to let them talk about their experiences. Acts like offering to talk, checking in, and doing chores for them are also ways of showing empathy. These acts show that you’ve put yourself in their shoes and recognize that they’re going through something challenging.

However, bear in mind that acts of empathy will be different depending on the person. It’s all about listening to how they’re feeling and what would help them specifically. For example, doing chores might be helpful for someone who’s struggling, while another person might want to cook and clean to take their mind off things. And while listening is an important part of showing empathy, you also shouldn’t force someone to talk if they aren’t ready.

Examples of expressing sympathy


Acts of sympathy send a message that you’re thinking about that person and have been affected by their news. They’re often gestures to let someone know that they’re not alone in their grief.

·       Sending a card

·       Sending flowers

·       Attending a funeral or memorial

·       Sharing kind words or memories about the person who’s died


We often write words of sympathy in condolence cards or in messages to someone who’s grieving. You might want to share your own sadness about their loss or share some fond memories of that person.

·       “Our deepest sympathies at this difficult time.”

·       “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

·       “Thinking of you.”

·       “Your father will be missed. He was a great man.”

·       “All of us were so sad to hear the news. She was a wonderful person and we’ll miss her cheery smile.”

Read more: What to write in a sympathy card

Examples of expressing empathy


Acts of empathy should center around listening, showing that you’re there, and offering practical help that will be useful to that individual. It will vary from person to person, but here are some examples:

·       Asking someone how they’re feeling

·       Offering to stop by or talk on the phone

·       Helping someone make funeral arrangements

·       Carrying out chores so they don’t have to worry about it


Words of empathy should express that you understand what someone’s going through and that you’re holding space for their emotions and listening to their needs.

·       “This must be so difficult. I’m always here if you want to talk.”

·       “Call me any time, day or night.”

·       “I’ve made you some food to freeze in case you’re not up for cooking.”

·       “You’re not alone.”

·       “Whatever you’re feeling right now is ok.”

·       “How can I support you?”

More ways to express empathy and sympathy

Finding the right words for someone who’s in pain can be hard. Our 35 alternatives to “sorry for your loss” include many different things you can say to express both empathy and sympathy. Our 10 sympathy message examples that can help you create your own may also help you write heartfelt messages for the loss of parents, children, pets, and other significant people in someone’s life.

People also need sympathy and empathy when going through a period of sickness. Take a look at our 35 example words of encouragement for a sick person to help you find the words to support someone who’s suffering from illness.

Read more: How our memorial forests work

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