07/21/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Difference Between 'I'm Sorry' and 'I've Been There'

On a recent flight to Detroit, the woman sitting across the aisle from me was visibly sad. The flight attendant -- a bright-eyed African-American woman with blonde braids and a giant smile -- asked her what was wrong. The woman responded that her father had recently passed away, and she began to cry.

The flight attendant grabbed her hand, looked into her eyes and said, "I've been there, honey. I've been there."

Those words, and the deep empathy with which she said them, moved the woman (and me) profoundly. The woman leaned in for a hug and the flight attendant pulled her into her arms. There they stayed for many seconds, two strangers intimately connected by their shared experience of having lost a loved one. Two human beings not just understanding, but feeling one another.


There's a huge difference between sympathy and empathy, between "I'm sorry" and "I've been there." It's not that sympathy is bad, not at all. It's just that empathy invites a connection sympathy simply can't. Sympathy says, "I feel sorry for you," while empathy declares, "I am you." Sympathy requires you to find compassion -- from a distance -- for another's misfortune. Empathy demands that you revisit your own pain in order to relate to someone else's.

My dear friend's mother was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given less than a year to live. I know the pain of losing a parent, as well as the struggle of watching a loved one succumb to lung cancer. When I spoke to my friend, I didn't distance myself from my own experiences. I opened to my pain so that she would know she's not alone, and that I, too, had been there. I didn't do this by making the conversation about me, but by bringing to it the connection of our shared experience.


If you can relate to someone going through a difficult time, try to find the strength to let them know. Allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to revisit your own pain and to share it, in words or in energy. Let them know that you are there for them, and that you can empathize with what they're experiencing.

It's not about trying to fix the situation. You don't have to have any answers. The pain of loss, especially, has no easy fix, and there are no words to appease that kind of grief. To my friend whose mother is dying, I said, among other things, "I don't know what to say, other than I love you and I'm here for you." I am not just here for her, I am her.

And that's the thing about being human. We are all each other. We don't have to have the exact same experiences to relate to and empathize with one another. Heartache is heartache. Anger is anger. Grief is grief. We have all walked the path between joy and sorrow, stopping at every emotion along the way. We simply have to be willing to share ourselves with each other, willing to be vulnerable and speak about our pain.

The next time you're inclined to sympathize, see if there's really an opportunity to empathize. Call on your courage, take that person's hand, look them in the eyes and let them know you've been there. Thank them for sharing themselves with you, for entrusting you with whatever it is they're going through. These are the types of connections that change people, that foster love, that remind us we are all brothers and sisters.

And ultimately, we are all brothers and sisters.