The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

CW: pet death

“So, are you going to get a new cat?” my coworker, Bridget, asked. Her eyebrows rounded and the gray streak in her hair glowed in the harsh fluorescent light.

A mixture of impatience and grief constricted my throat. I had come so close to getting out the door. My computer was off, and I was on my way to the kitchenette, hands full of the dishes I’d dirtied over the course of the workday. A bowl and a plate balanced on top of a coffee mug. The strap of my messenger bag, filled with textbooks and prototypes of a project that was behind schedule because I’d taken an unexpected day off, dug into my shoulder, and I began to sweat under my winter coat.

“Well, she only passed a few days ago. I haven’t really thought about it.”

My words came out in an awkward lilt, a relic of my customer service days when I was forced to mask annoyance with politeness. I knew where this conversation was headed. Several other sympathetic co-workers had felt compelled to tell me stories of their pets’ deaths today.

“I remember when my Lucas passed. He hadn’t been well for a few weeks; the vet said it was probably a kidney infection. Anyway, I was on the couch watching TV. He got up on my lap like he usually did. I probably watched two or three shows before I got up. I stirred a little—that usually gets him up—but he didn’t move. Then I nudged him and realized how stiff he was, how cold to the touch. He had passed right there on my lap.”

A hiccup rose in my chest. Peering down the corridor into the kitchenette, I calculated how offended my coworker would be if I just walked away, or if dropping my dishes right now would reset the conversation or force me to listen to more memento mori stories. Instead, my mind flashed to three days ago. Daphne lay in her Darth Vader bed in the quietest corner of the living room. I shook a bag of treats as a greeting, which usually elicited a few meows and as much excitement as a sick 19-year-old cat could muster. But something was different. Her front legs moved to lift herself, but her hind legs stayed folded up against her white belly.

I emerged from my memory to find Bridget imploring me.

“Are you okay?”

I put the dishes down on the nearest tabletop. The room was empty, excepting the two of us. Screensavers on every computer showed lava lamp bubbles bouncing within the confines of the screens.

“What? Yeah, I’m so sorry about Lucas, but it was sweet that he came to you for safety in that moment. How long ago was that?”

“Maybe fifteen years? I’ve had three cats since. Ginger died at the vet, but she was older, like your kitty, so we had time to prepare…” She continued, but all I could do was wonder how she could possibly prepare. There is no preparing.

“She’s malnourished and dehydrated,” a young vet had said three days before, her white coat and purple Vans too bright in the beige room. “I had a hard time finding her pulse. What were you thinking about her care tonight?”

Daphne lay on the examination table wrapped in a white towel. She was so quiet; visits outside the house usually made her mewl. The vet tapped a clipboard with a pen as I looked at my partner. Muzak fogged the room.

“We’re prepared to let her go.”

Back at work, Bridget placed a hand on my arm. I didn’t know how long it had been since she’d stopped telling her story. Her mouth pinched with concern, and she held out a box of Kleenex decorated with Minions, their smiles and popping eyes looked sinister.

“I’m so sorry. Probably the last thing you want to hear right now are stories about death,” she said.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Writing for the YeahWrite nonfiction challenge. Click the badge above to read other well-written essays!

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I am a writer for an e-Learning course vendor near Chicago.

26 thoughts on “The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy”

  1. So sorry about Daphne… They are truly family members (often even better). I really liked the title of this piece as it makes you think, but I agree with another commenter that it would work even better if you somehow added the definitions within the essay. Beautiful and sad, all in one.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. Losing a pet is like losing a member of your family and I really wanted to punch the woman in this story for her insensitivity. What impressed me was the example of your empathy in the face of her harsh sympathy (asking about her loss instead of running away) Only recommendation would be to move the paragraph starting with Daphne lay before the paragraph starting with She’s malnourished. That felt awkward there and maybe switching those paragraphs will help.

  3. Hugs to you Nate .
    This was a nan emotional read.The minions, screen savers…interesting bright colors with that gray feeling of loss. Not sure I know anyone, myself included who really know what to say or do in the presence of death. 😦 My only critique would be that I am not loving the title …

      1. Hmm. Too on the nose? Not as rich as the piece? Dangling my finger on it, but I do know that I did not expect the deep emotion connection of what I read from the title, if that makes sense.

  4. I’m so sorry for your loss, Nate. People are the worst sometimes. I guess at least Bridget got it in the end. Maybe she will think twice about telling her story next time someone she knows loses a pet. So much great imagery in this piece. I felt as if I were a fly on the wall. Also I love that she had a Darth Vader bed. That is awesome.

  5. So sorry about your loss. Indeed, the last thing you want in your moment of grief is to try and give sympathies to someone else’s stories. It’s an awful thing to lose an animal, more a member of the family than blood relatives. ❤

  6. I’m sorry for your loss. You express this aspect of loss/grieving so beautifully and clearly that those of us who haven’t gone through this can be more empathetic because of it.

  7. Sorry to hear about Daphne. Many times one does not know how to offer condolences. Been on both sides of the story, so I get it. This was beautifully written. I loved how you brought out your inner struggle in dealing with your co-worker’s attempts to understand your grief.

  8. Nate, I’m glad you continue to write about your loss. I used to tell my kids, “It’s okay to feel sad when something sad happens.” I think we are too quick to try to comfort people and try to make that go away. My sympathies.

    From a concrit standpoint, I think the image of you standing holding the dishes was a very effective metaphor of you feeling stuck between your grief and the desire to be polite. The second flashback didn’t flow as well for me either. I wonder if you could just rephrase the transition sentence so that you go from her time to prepare to your own did/didn’t have time to prepare.

    It’s really hard to be picky with your work, because you write so beautifully I slide right past any little thing that isn’t.

  9. Nate, this had me so teary! Pets are family, aren’t they? Roxy, my beagle, is thirteen and I can’t imagine life without her. She’s been there with us forever.

    I think you created that uncomfortable tension between you and your coworker beautifully. The only thing that was maybe a tad jarring was the second flashback. I don’t know if there was enough preparation for the vet’s dialogue. Maybe if you moved the description of Daphne above the dialogue it would work? Other than that, this piece. Oh, Nate. I wish I could hug you!

  10. So sorry for you all on the loss of Daphne. Grief is hard, for those who grieve, and for those who try and relieve. Balance is hard to find. I like how you have written this.

  11. So sorry to hear about your Daphne. I know how it must feel. I went through the exact same thing. A neighbour asked me if I was planning on getting a new pet dog a few days after I lost my fur baby.
    There are things some people say that we need to just ignore. Not everyone knows how to express sympathy or offer consolation.
    Hugs to you!

  12. Oh, Nate, I’m so sorry to hear about Daphne. I still remember a piece you wrote a few months ago about her. This is so raw and relatable. It makes me understand the situation and your feelings while leaving room for my experiences. Have you thought about making more of the sympathy/empathy contrast? Right now, you almost need to understand the difference to see it in your experience.

    I really am so sorry that you lost Daphne. What hard decision to make.

    1. Yeah, I kept putting explanations in and pulling them out. I didn’t want to lecture; I wanted to stick to the story and let readers draw their own conclusions. Maybe there’s a happy medium?

      1. Would inserting the definitions of sympathy vs. empathy at different points be a possible happy medium? Like what Lisa did the other week in her Genesis of Womanhood post? (Also is there a term for that interspersing of quotes from another text as a counterpart for the narrative?) Then it wouldn’t be lecture, but the contrasting information would still be there. You could also use one as a break before the second flashback.

      2. That’s why nonfiction is the worst! 🙂 I absolutely understood where you were going with it. Any more may be too heavy-handed. For me, it worked and it was just lovely. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  13. I sure wish we had a better tradition of how to tend to people who are grieving, because, as you say here, there really is nothing worse than when someone gets it wrong and it happens so often. I liked “Muzak fogged the room,”–just one of the many places you choose a strong verb to paint a picture.

  14. The is a painfully honest post, if uncomfortable – for me particularly because I see myself in both roles. So often we just say the wrong thing when faced with someone else’s grief in our attempt to be empathetic. (At least I know I’m an awkward yeti….)

    I love the section about concealing your true feelings with a mask of politeness. Lies in a guise of social niceties.

    My condolences on the loss of your furr-baby.

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