The Dos and Don'ts of empathy cards
There are no rules when it comes to empathy, but there are some basic guiding principles that will help you ensure that your supportive intention doesn't go amiss.
The whole point of an empathy card should be to show that you acknowledge, feel and understand - as much as you can - what the other person is going through. However, it can be hard to write a message that conveys all of this whilst also avoiding the murky traps that make someone feel worse.
I suspect that the main reason people stay silent and say nothing is a fear of saying the wrong thing and making the person feel worse. And there is validity in this. Whilst some would prefer you to say something - even if it's the wrong thing, others would prefer you to say nothing, lest you say something hurtful.
My support guide outlines the best ways to approach these situations. Be it a card, or phone call or an in person chat.
But what about writing cards specifically? A surprising number of people find it difficult putting pen to paper at the best of times. Being able to articulate your thoughts verbally, as opposed to in writing, is usually easier. I have included an easy to read infographic that you can save for your own reference. This is a quick way to ensure that your words are hitting the right note. I want you to feel empowered and confident - that you know what to say and how to say it. You don't need to be afraid to show your support of someone.
People often feel frightened to mention the difficulties others are facing, whether it is divorce, miscarriage, grief following a death, mental illness, chronic illness...the list goes on. But how can you show your support unless you do acknowledge it?
It doesn't need to be a lengthy and uncomfortable examination of the situation, but a simple "I'm sorry to hear about..." or "I heard about... I'm so sorry you have to go through that" is enough. You're acknowledging it, letting them know that it is a real pain and you see it.
It's important to validate the pain and how hard it must be. Let them know it is okay to feel how they do and you understand why they would be sad, anxious, angry...why should they feel any other way? Let them know that you're here for them. It's a standing offer. You will be there, no matter what, even if you don't know how to help, you want to be there for them.
Set a date to check in. And keep doing so. This is often when people feel most adrift and lonely, long after the initial connection. As I've said before, you can never be too empathetic, but you can be apathetic. Err on the side of more checking in, rather than not.
The most common way people will inadvertently hurt someone is by telling them to look around them and appreciate what they have. Look at the positives, look how lucky you are... In theory, in makes sense. But when someone's life is seen only in black and white, it's impossible to feel grateful for anything. And telling them to makes them feel even worse.
You want to avoid making the recipient of your card feel like they aren't doing enough. Because just getting up each day is a victory for them. Even if you think you know what will make them feel better, or why they feel how they do, it's not your responsibility to point it out. Your role as a friend or supporter is to acknowledge and validate, not problem solve and fix. What you end up doing, without knowing, is implying that this is all their fault. If they just change how they live or view something, then everything will be okay. This isn't true.
Try to avoid comparing the situation to yourself or someone else. They won't feel less alone, they will just think you don't understand them. Because no one else's pain could be like theirs - it's okay to not understand their pain, so just say that. You will still be there any way.
And just remember; ignoring a situation is the worst thing you can do. Even if the person looks uncomfortable, it will still mean something. Just be guided by them as to whether you go further into the discussion. But pretending that there is no issue, or trying to avoid talking about it implies that you don't care. And there is nothing more heartbreaking.