Compassion Versus Pity

by | Feb 20, 2013 | 4 comments

Even though someone grieving sudden loss is in such great shock- it’s amazing how, at least for me, everything from even those first days- is so crystal clear.  And in the last 2-1/2 years, I have often reflected on the comfort I have received from others, as well as the things that weren’t so comforting (which are not worth dwelling on).  

I will always remember a friend, with tears streaming down her face- as I played some of your music in my bedroom a week or so afterwards- saying, “What a loss…what a loss…”  
I remember a newer friend (and a military wife), from our church at that time, visiting me with her small child, and after some pretty normal introductions, her eyes meeting mine and saying, “I’m sorry Julia…” holding me and crying.  I remember the exact intonation of her voice.
I remember another acquaintance from that church approaching me at IKEA at a playgroup months afterwards.  “I never got to tell you personally- I’m so sorry for your loss.”  She looked me right in the eye and said that.  It taught me it is never too late to say those words, and if you haven’t- even it’s years afterwards- it is more appropriate than not saying anything.  It will not “reignite” sadness.  I promise.  
I think about a friend from college I hadn’t seen in years, the guy who was the “funny guy” in our college fellowship,  at the funeral – and at some point, I was walking- very, very slowly as I hadn’t eaten in days- to the restroom downstairs from where the service had been held.  He came up to me and asked me if I wanted him to carry me.  Because he was always so funny, it seemed like he was joking and I chuckled, “No… it’s OK.”  But he repeated his offer and was serious.  I declined, but I often think of this.  “Do you want me to carry you?”  
Of course there are so many others who comforted me in many ways with words or actions or both- old friends and new friends, my parents of course.  I’m getting dangerously close to sounding like I’m accepting an Academy Award, but I think it’s worth saying- what we do and say, matters.  It makes a difference.  People are changed by our words and actions.  They remember.  I remember.  
It is helpful to think of in terms of compassion versus pity- two very different things.  The griever, if at all discerning- can always tell the difference.
Writer Matt Litton: “While pity shows a lack of respect for other human beings, compassion has its roots in a deep respect for others.  Pity is an emotion; compassion is a connection.  Compassion sees the other as equal.  Compassion happens when we care for another person enough to make his or her problems our own.”  
True compassion, I realize now, is rare.  Compassion- with suffering.  Suffering with.
Henri Nowen puts it like this: 
“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate.  Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to places where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.  But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering.  What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”  
Some people will tell you time will heal.  Many will try to find some way to relate and empathize by telling you stories of their own trials- even though they often have nothing to do with yours.  Others will emphasize how strong you are- because they don’t want to believe you’re just like them, and this could happen to them- and then they’d have to be “strong.”  Those who get it, follow Nowen’s cue above- they cry with us, sit silently with us, shake their heads in confusion with us; they walk beside us and maybe even offer to carry us.


February 20, 2013


  1. teeth

    I can relate a little bit since I do remember who did and didn't speak to me when my mother died. It didn't matter how awkward or trite the words were; it just mattered that they spoke. I understand people might not know what to say, but saying something is better than nothing. I didn't realize that I would remember the silences as well. Thank you for the tips on how to talk to those in grief; it's very helpful even if there is not much to do about suffering than just to suffer it..

  2. Anonymous

    I have just found your writing.
    Thank you.

  3. Jo Julia

    Thanks for reading.

  4. Jo Julia

    Thanks for reading.


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