I was preparing to leave the house for work when my wife walked into the kitchen with a concerned look on her face.  Without hesitation, she shared that her eighty-year-old dad was in the hospital. Even though he had experienced plenty of medical issues over the years, my stomach dropped. He had injured his head in a fall only days earlier, and the damage was worse than expected. Despite my unease, she still urged me to go to work, and I headed to the office.

Within an hour, she called me to tell me he took a turn for the worse. I told her I’d be home in 15 minutes and started to wrap up a few things. Less than ten minutes later, she called me to tell me he was gone. As I was leaving, I ran into someone who asked me why I was rushing. I told them my father-in-law had just passed away, and I was going home to be with my wife. With a serious look on their face, they asked if he knew Jesus. I told them he had walked with God for many years and was a faithful follower of Jesus. Their response was something along the lines of him being in a better place and knowing that would help us grieve. I thanked them and headed home.

Later that afternoon I received a text from a friend who had heard about the loss we experienced. It was a short text which stirred something in me that we will explore together in a moment. The text simply said that he was sorry to hear about my father-in-law, and those words were followed by; “loss is hard.”

These three simple words have since caused me to rethink how to interact with people when they walk through the hard things in life. Could it be possible that my responses to others have often been less helpful than I ever considered?

The well-meaning person in the first interaction was sympathetic to my situation. Sympathy is about understanding things from your own perspective– feeling for another. When they learned I had encountered death, they instantly felt bad for me. There was nothing about their words that communicated an understanding of my experience. I was fully aware of my father-in-law’s eternal state, but their words were not helpful to me. In the moment, all I knew was that person wanted me to know they cared.

Sympathy often involves unsolicited advice and keeps things on the surface level. It says things like, “They’re in a better place. I feel bad for you. I’m glad you could say goodbye to him,” or “I wish I could have done that with my dad.” Sympathy is cognitive and has a degree of emotional distance to it. When we are sympathetic, we give our thoughts, advice, or condolences to someone and then we move on. Sympathy can contain a desire to make the situation better, though that is often not the outcome.

As I reflected on the simple text of, “loss is hard,” I worked to understand why those words were meaningful in that moment. I came to recognize those words made me feel understood. I happened to know this person had lost their own dad within the past couple of years, but he never mentioned that. He didn’t try to make me feel better, but instead communicated that he knew what I was walking through was difficult. His response was similar to Jesus’s in John chapter eleven. Jesus learns the difficult news that his friend Lazarus had died. Upon hearing this, Jesus did not try to immediately fix things, nor did he offer words to try and make others feel better. Jesus simply sat and wept with them. Looking back, I can see that my friend was really following the example of Jesus.

Because empathy is feeling with another. It’s seeing things from the perspective of another. The intention of empathy isn’t to offer a fix but to simply sit in the situation with a friend. Listening without judgment is a key part of empathy. Empathy doesn’t give unsolicited advice and does not make the situation about ourselves. Statements of empathy include, “that sounds frustrating,” “so what I hear you saying is…” and “It’s understandable to be hurting.”

One of the barriers to being empathetic can be our own discomfort. It’s hard to sit with others when they’re hurting. We want to be helpful, but it’s far easier for us to manage when we feel as though we are offering someone a way out of their pain.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs offers us wisdom when it comes to recognizing what others need when they’re hurting. The wisdom given is “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). It’s easy and natural for us to want to tell others what we think about a situation. Seldom are people looking for us to fix things or even suggest what to do. People want us to understand them, to sit with them in the hard things, and to listen without judgment.

Empathy is often a more helpful response than sympathy, as empathy seeks to understand. Empathy has a desire to connect with another person and sit with them through whatever they are experiencing. When I received the text, “loss is hard,” it felt like my friend understood the reality of the loss that had taken place in my life.

Being a better friend is about having an authentic connection with people. There are many moments in our lives where we want someone to understand what we are experiencing. Our desire is for people to sit with us through the hard things and feel with us instead of for us.

Several months after my father-in-law passed away, a good friend of mine lost his wife. He sent me a text telling me what happened and communicated his family had immediately come over to support him. I recognized this as an opportunity to care through empathy, so I paused to consider my words before responding. I texted him saying, “I am so sorry to hear this. I cannot even grasp how devastating this must be. I know how deep your love for her was. On behalf of my family, we love you, are praying for you, and I will call you soon.”

Knowing he was with family, I waited a couple of days before giving him a call. There was part of me that wanted to know what happened. I wanted to ask about the sequence of events that occurred, and how he was coping with this loss. Thinking back to the exchanges after my father-in-law died, I tried an approach that was different from my norm. 

When he answered my call, I asked him how he was doing. He shared how his family was supporting him, and he had a lot of people reaching out to him. I could hear the pain in his voice, so when an opportunity came to respond, I found myself desperately wanting to empathize. With a sincere and breaking heart I said, “I know how much you loved her, and I can’t imagine how much it must hurt to lose her after more than fifty years of marriage.” There was a short pause and when he spoke again, he said in a trembling voice, “I miss her so much.”

At that moment, I lost it, wept with him, and just listened.

Without being prompted, he told me about her last day and what he experienced. I listened, offered no advice, and was simply present. The entire conversation lasted maybe ten minutes before he had to go. I prayed with him, and when the call ended, I just sat and cried. I hurt for him, but I was also thinking back to the ways I interact with people who are sad, grieving, or distressed. My mind was flooded with seemingly hundreds of times I made it about me instead of sitting in the pain with others. My non-empathetic responses only reveal my own discomfort for being present in the hard things. During that phone call, I chose to feel with him instead of feeling for him. I wanted to understand what he was walking through and be present with him. It was far more painful for me than sympathy, but ultimately, I wanted to do what was best for him. He ended up sharing deep things, and undoubtedly, felt loved and cared for. Months later when I physically sat with him, he indicated that he was grateful for my willingness to walk with him through his grief. The journey toward empathy has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.

Learning how to be a better friend involves considering what someone needs when they are hurting. While sitting in a Roman prison, the apostle Paul writes that when we turn the focus from ourselves to another, we have the same mindset of Jesus himself. Paul writes that having the mindset of Jesus involves, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:4). A definition of love that has always stuck with me is you before me. When we empathize with another, we are considering what they need, and choosing to love them like Jesus does.

Empathy helps us live like Jesus. When we seek to understand what people are experiencing and are willing to sit with them in their hurt, we are displaying God’s incomparable love. By developing the skill of empathy, we look past our own interests and turn our eyes toward others. Our focus shifts toward what others need in the hard moments that are part of living in this broken world. By choosing empathy, we love like Jesus, and in the hardest times, it makes all the difference.