Empathy, not just sympathy, can help the most, Iowa State University researcher says

Katherine Rafferty, a lecturer in psychology and communication studies at Iowa State University, has researched how to communicate with parents who have lost children or who have sick children. (Provided by Iowa State University)
Katherine Rafferty, a lecturer in psychology and communication studies at Iowa State University, has researched how to communicate with parents who have lost children or who have sick children. (Provided by Iowa State University)

A sympathy card might be a good idea for someone grieving a loss or battling an illness.

But it might not be, as Iowa State University lecturer Katherine Rafferty has found in her research into how parents who have a sick child or who have lost a child communicate with family and friends.

“A quote one of the parents that I interviewed once said that has stuck with me — even personally — is that not all social support is helpful social support,” said Rafferty, who in addition to her teaching and research on psychology and communication studies directs ISU’s Family Health Communication research lab.

Rafferty’s research focuses on how parents who’ve lost a child or have one with a chronic illness cope and how friends, family members and doctors can help.

Her insight proves especially relevant around the holidays, as families find themselves doused with added pressure and expectations from other people, their children — even themselves.

“A lot of parents, they see their job as being the bearer of hope and trying to be there for their kids,” Rafferty said.

And they need help doing that. But the kind of help is not always the brand friends and family members offer. Some parents want help watching their child, and that can be complicated for kids with medical needs like those using a ventilator or a tracheal tube.

Those families might need a trained helper or one willing to learn.

“Not all family members are comfortable doing that,” she said.

Lots of outsiders are willing to offer financial support. But parents in the thick of a stark reality often desire richer relational involvement — a concept epitomized in Rafferty’s research of the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Empathy, she said, “fuels connection.”


“It’s about taking the perspective of the other, or at least trying to, refraining from any sort of judgment claims, acknowledging whatever emotions that person’s experiencing, and really trying to be with them and walk with them in those emotions — as difficult and painful as that can be,” she said.

Sympathy, on the other hand, “is focusing on yourself.”

“Saying things like, ‘I’m sorry to hear about … what have you,’” Rafferty said. “Or we send sympathy cards or we send flowers, and we feel like that’s well-intentioned. But, again, it’s not necessarily putting oneself in the perspective and the position of that other person.”

Of course, sympathy cards and gifts have their places and times, according to Rafferty. Those types of support might be best suited for a co-worker you don’t know well, a more distant relative or an acquaintance who has requested a particular sort of donation.

Parents in today’s world of social media, crowdfunding campaigns and viral videos must be deliberate in what they put out there, she said.

Many find sharing at least some aspect of their journey to be helpful.

“We’re very cognizant, we’re mindful of — this is who I’m going to tell this piece of information to,” Rafferty said. “It might not be the whole story. It might just be part of the story. Or maybe it’s the whole story. But we make these very strategic decisions.”

Recipients of sensitive and personal information should understand they now have a responsibility, of sorts.

“They own that information as well,” Rafferty said, ”and if we don’t set these rules or these boundaries about what that information looks like or who can know what, then somebody might end up saying something that we don’t want shared.”

She pointed to instances on social media when people congratulate friends on engagements or births before they themselves announce it.

And yet, Rafferty said, risks of social media are balanced by the benefit of creating community.


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By sharing experiences on Facebook or Twitter, for example, parents can shape the treatment or advocate differently.

“Parents are able to create these communities of support where they can ask questions, they can post pictures, they can get advice,” Rafferty said.

Whether supporting someone online or in person, Rafferty said, the take away is to sit in someone’s seat, or at least try to squeeze in.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m thinking about you’ or ‘I’m praying for you’ or send a card or give some money to a fund,” Rafferty said. “You really have to get your hands dirty and walk with them. ... But in those instances, that’s when you’re able to really help that person the most.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com



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