Sympathy and empathy are separate terms with some very important distinctions. Sympathy and empathy are both acts of feeling, but with sympathy you feel for the person; you’re sorry for them or pity them, but you don’t specifically understand what they’re feeling. Sometimes we’re left with little choice but to feel sympathetic because we really can’t understand the plight or predicament of someone else. It takes imagination, work, or possibly a similar experience to get to empathy.
Empathy can best be described as feeling with the person. Notice the distinction between for and with. To an extent you are placing yourself in that person’s place, have a good sense of what they feel, and understand their feelings to a degree. It may be impossible to be fully empathetic because each individual's reactions, thoughts and feelings to tragedy are going to be unique. Yet the idea of empathy implies a much more active process. Instead of feeling sorry for, you’re sorry with and have clothed yourself in the mantle of someone else’s emotional reactions.
It is fairly easy to feel sympathetic to someone else’s difficulties. We can definitely pity others who have lost a loved one, undergone significant trauma, or faced terribly difficult times. Those of us who watched the terror of the 9/11 attacks could certainly sympathize, but could we empathize? Actually, many of us could, though few of us can lay claim to really knowing what it might be like to either be in that attack or lose loved ones in it.
All Americans shared in the common ground that America had been attacked. People with no relationship to any person affected by the attack were stunned, shocked, saddened, in grief. We were not just sympathetic, and many arose to express empathy; if we did not know with surety, we could imagine how horribly difficult this was for the many directly affected. Even newspapers around the world felt with Americans, as the French newspaper Le Monde featured the headline “We are All Americans.”
This is perhaps the best example of how empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy expressed to a person in grief suggests that person is alone in their grief. Empathy suggests you’re in it with them, you can imagine what it is to be in their shoes, and you are together with them in emotional turmoil and loss. Even the best people in the world may have a hard time expressing true empathy. A person who suffers a significant loss may have a hard time talking to his/her family because what is being expressed is condolences or pity, which may not be very helpful.
The need for true empathy gives rise to many groups of people who are encountering huge losses. There are numerous “therapy” groups for battered women, rape victims, parents who have lost children, people undergoing divorce, children with significant illnesses. In such groups, people often have the opportunity to talk to others experiencing things in a very direct way.
In these settings, those suffering don’t get the sympathy of others, but instead get the empathy of others. There is often an implied understanding since all people in such a group are similarly circumstanced. Frequently, what a person in grief really needs to hear is “I’ve done that too," "I totally get what you’re saying," or "I had the exact same thoughts," from someone else: all expressions of empathy. What they tend not to want to hear is “I’m so sorry for you,” an expression of sympathy that makes them feel alone and isolated in their grief.