There is a slight semantic difference between sympathy and empathy, but in reality, the difference is much wider. The former is a feeling of pity while the latter involves a deeper level of compassion and understanding of another person’s plight. For example, sympathy for a grieving or ailing friend is not enough. You have to put yourself in their shoes and behave in such a way that you’d like people to behave to you if you were in that condition.
I visited a bereaved family recently and I noticed that a lot of people don’t know the etiquettes of offering condolences. Many of the visitors were mere sympathisers and pests. They were saying too much unnecessary stuff and asking not-too-intelligent questions. Almost everyone wanted to know, “how it happened”. Is it that they wanted to make their own postmortem diagnosis or what?
Imagine a grieving person having to retell a horror story to tens or hundreds of individuals; over and over again… For some, narrating the story may help them cope with the stress of grief, but for others, it’s just like sticking a needle into a wound, causing more pain and prolonging the healing process.
When you visit a grieving friend, you should KISS – Keep It Short and Simple! No long sermon. No marathon prayer. No exaggerated eulogy. No loud wailing or hissing. Ask if they need any help from you and offer same. Admonish them to be patient and strong. Do not crack jokes (even though your intention is to make them smile, some jokes may end up being inappropriate).
In many cultures, the bereaved family would be the one preparing food and drinks to serve the visitors. This is inconvenient for obvious reasons. The practice is considered as bid’ah by the generality of the scholars. The reverse is encouraged instead. It was reported in a “hasan” hadith that when the news of the death of Ja’far [bin Abi Talib] came, the Prophet (saw) said, ”Prepare food for the family of Ja’far, for there has come to them what has preoccupied them.”
May Allaah grant us understanding of the deen and save us from grief and sorrow. Aameen.