Empathy or Compassion? A Funeral Celebrant’s dilema

empathy or compassion as a funeral celebrant

Showing empathy or compassion is vital in our work as Celebrants. However, as we teach in all our programmes, the work we do as professional independent Celebrants, is never about us. This is often a challenge when we are met with grief. We’re taught to show compassion by saying things like ‘I know how you feel. That happended to me too…’ or ‘When my mum died, I felt the same way.’ Creating a boundary for your ego, a place for comparison to stop, is essential if you’re going to put the needs of those you are working for, first.

We’re all pretty bad at talking about death. We’re culturally inadequately prepared for the one thing that is truly inevitable. This makes empathising with those who are grieving, a real challenge. How do you show empathy and support? What is the ‘right’ thing to say and when is the ‘right’ time to say it? As Celebrants, we’re often one of the first people they’re talking to about the person who has died. It’s up to us to make this as un-challenging as possible and empathy feels like a good place to start.

How do we define showing empathy?

According to researchers at the University of Berkley,  The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as: The ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. And here in lies the stumbling block for our carefully laid plans – ‘coupled with tthe ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.’

This poses a dilema for a Celebrant. if I put myself in their shoes, if I need to imagine what they are feeling, in order to show emapthy, how do I remain professional? We teach our students that they must protect their own mental health as part of the role of being a Funeral Celebrant. We cannot support our clients if we carry their grief. Delivering a ceremony for their loved-one would be impossible for us if we embraced what they might be thinking or feeling.

show compassion

Perhaps it’s time to show compassion rather than empathy

Compassion is more about showing sympathy and care. Letting the situation be about the other person, but hearing and seeing their need for support. We do not have to give an example of feeling the same way. This showing of compassion feels more appropriate than empathy to me.

When we take on this role, we often come across families who are at a time in their life that looks and feels like something we’ve experienced. It would be so easy to go back to our own experience and make the comparison, believing this makes us more compassionate and caring towards them. However, we’ve really just made it about us. We’ve found a way to label what they are going through to make it easier to understand. Perhaps, taking the empathy out of the scenario, and replacing it with compassion, allows us to listen to their story, rather than our own.

‘Listen to understand, not to reply’

This quote is often referred to during our Funeral Celebrant Training. We want students to understand that if we’re using empathy, there is a chance we’re just waiting for the moment to say ‘I know how you feel’. What we need to be doing instead, is actively listening to their experience. Their truth, their grief. Showing empathy or compassion require us to listen. Showing compassion alone requires us to be present exclusively for the person who is suffering the loss.

How do you feel about showing compassion vs empathy? We’d love to know your thoughts….

If you’re ready to book a call with me to discuss starting your training as a Celebrant you can do that here.

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