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!

What Rob Lowe Taught Me About Fear

TW: pet death

I watched a show a few weeks ago called The Lowe Files in which the actor Rob Lowe and his sons visited an old “haunted” prison at midnight. There they met up with a scientist who studied the effects of fear in humans. Rob and his youngest son, John Owen, volunteered to wear heart monitors and other sensors and spend time in terrifying places. John Owen cowered at the bottom of the prison’s former gallows in the dark next to the hole in the ground that allowed the deads’ bodily fluids to drain. With the aid of night vision cameras, we could see every jump and twitch and facial expression he made. He remained terrified throughout the experiment because he was psyching himself out. His voice grew more shrill as he spiraled deeper into fear.

When John Owen’s experiment was over, the scientist sent Rob to the prison’s basement, the place that had been solitary confinement. Rob was also terrified…at first. But the longer he sat there the more comfortable he grew. His fear levels tapered off almost immediately, rising slightly when he heard a noise or when a draught blew over him. His reaction was the complete opposite of his son’s.

After the experiments, when both men were safe again in the room with the scientific equipment, the scientist told the pair that they demonstrated the two main reactions to fear. I don’t remember her exact words, but I have been thinking about it as “the churner” and “the taperer.” John Owen’s fear levels remained high throughout the experiment. He is a churner. Rob’s fear levels spiked at the beginning of the experiment and then tapered off to almost the same level as before he walked into the basement. Rob is the taperer.

I learned from that episode that, when it comes to fear, I am a John-Owen churner.


My orange tabby cat Dobyns was devoted to me. He had been my first pet after moving out of my parents’ house. He followed me around and insisted on being on my lap whenever I sat down. He demanded food all the time and would freak out if he could see a centimeter of the bottom of his food dish. I didn’t have the patience to fight with him, so I kept filling his bowl. At his largest, he was 23 lbs. That isn’t a typo. He was humungous.

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In the fall of 2010, he dropped a significant amount of weight over about 2 months. I took him to the vet, who said there was a lump in Dobyns’s abdomen. From that moment on, I had little rest. I couldn’t sleep; I’d wake up to any small noise in the apartment. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t done enough to help him, my Dobbs. I had overfed him. I hadn’t played with him enough. I had gotten mad when he demanded too much of my attention. I tried to make it up to him. I started brushing his teeth and giving him catnip-infused toys. I cleaned his litter box twice a day and bought him the most expensive food. I carried him to the vet’s office every other week for chemo.

I don’t know why I was surprised when he continued to lose weight, when he’d mewl after using the litter box because of the pain, when he stopped eating altogether. I guess I thought I could cure him with responsibility. His rehabilitation consumed me. I also lost weight. I’d get up in the middle of the night and sit next to his cat bed. I’d sniff the top of his head and whisper to him. “I wish you’d tell me what you need,” I’d say. “I can try to make it better.”

Dobyns died in February 2011. In his last minutes, at the vet, I reassured him that he wouldn’t be in pain any longer. Then the vet injected the drug into his arm. And the next morning, I woke up feeling so guilty that it had been the best night’s sleep I’d gotten in five months.


It’s happening again. My gray tabby Daphne dropped half of her weight over the summer. She is 19 years old, and her illness is coupled with arthritis and a bad thyroid, but she has more good days than bad. Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 2.58.34 PM

Last night after dinner, she joined me on the couch like she used to. She lay down on the blanket and stretched her paws to touch my leg. She wheezed, which rattled her purr, but she was genuinely happy. I bent over her and sniffed the top of her head. I whispered, “You are my sweet girl. You always have been my sweet girl.”

Our serenity in that moment reminded me of the differences between that time with Dobyns and now. I had been so terrified with Dobyns, not knowing what was going to happen or what was expected of me. I was John Owen in the gallows. And now, six years later, I am Rob Lowe in solitary confinement. In a good way. I am not worried that I’m not doing enough for her. She has had a long life, and I am secure in the fact that I have cared for her well. I do feel guilty about the should-haves and the could-haves of our relationship over the years, but I can remind myself that if, at the very end of her life, she is both horribly ill and purring ferociously from my gentle cooing, then I am exactly what she needs.