“People can’t have empathy”

G. Scott Graham
6 min readDec 12, 2022
Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

There have been a number of people in my life who have reacted negatively to these articles on grief. Their response is either to ghost me, gaslight me, or argue their grief myth with me. (It is obvious that they have not read the book, or else I would have been ghosted by all of them.)

It seems that with each new piece, I find yet another grief-related fallacy that I need to write about and publicly debunk.

A friend of mine, Kevin, contacted me after reading the Ashes-to-Ashes article.

Kevin clearly did not like my rebuke of the clueless who wanted to know of the “healing” impact of the trip and, worse, those who wished me to have a fun time on my adventure.

Our conversation went like this:

Kevin: “You know, no one can understand what you are going through.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Kevin: “They don’t know what you are going through because they haven’t had a loss like you have. That’s why they are called sympathy cards and not empathy cards.”

I was dumbfounded. Kevin, after all, is a close friend. He has been with me and heard me speak and write about grief over the past few years (though I don’t think he has read the book).

There are a couple of myths to unravel here; the first is sympathy cards, and the second is empathy.

Sympathy Cards

Sympathy cards are fucking useless. Do you want to know why people send sympathy cards? They serve only to make the SENDER feel good about themselves (“I sent a sympathy card”). They are completely useless for the recipient. Nothing. This whole social norm we have of sending cards and flowers is just some recent scheme to get your money. Here are some tidbits for you to chew on: It wasn’t until the 1920s that Hallmark even started manufacturing sympathy cards. The global greeting card market is expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2027. Sympathy accounts for almost 6 percent of all greeting cards sent for non-seasonal purposes. Do the math 6 percent of $13.4 billion is $804 million. This does not count the amount of money made from the number of people who, like Pavlov’s dog, feel compelled to send a “Thank You” card to every person who sends them a sympathy card.

Just like Christmas cards do not magically make your Christmas merry, just like get-well-soon cards do cure you of your illness, sympathy cards do nothing for your grieving.

Let me be clear here on what the issue is. It is not the cards. It is sympathy. Sympathy does nothing for your grieving. It is just some stupid fucking social norm that makes the person expressing sympathy feel all puffed up about what a good person they are.

How glaringly out of control are we with this sympathy bullshit? I have a story for you. A couple of months ago, I made the decision to start tying up some of the loose ends that had been left after Brian’s death. One of these loose ends was Brian’s retirement account, which he had dipped from in order to start his restaurant and bar. It has something like $26 remaining in it (it took me 4 phone calls, 2 hours, a letter, a document for the company, and a copy of Brian’s death certificate to close the account — I wonder why it was a loose end?). During the very first call, the computer system that picked up the phone questioned me about my reason for calling (no number pushing here — this is high-tech stuff). I said that I was calling to close an account because my husband had died. The computer responded by asking me if I was making account changes because of a death, and I said yes. The computer then said, in a soft, soothing tone, you guessed it, “We at XXX are so sorry for your loss. We want you to know you are in our thoughts at this difficult time.”

A fucking computer! I can’t tell you how helpful hearing a pre-recorded message that Brian’s investment company is sorry for my loss was. Oh, how special I felt.

And that is how expressing sympathy is today for people who are grieving.

As I wrote this article, I told a story to a trusted colleague of mine, Cate; she said, “People don’t know what to say and are afraid to put their foot in their mouth.”

Cate brings up a good point. So let me tell you what to say:

“That sounds hard. I don’t know what to say.”

That statement does two things — it expresses an empathetic hypothesis and tells the truth — you don’t know what to say.


Is it possible that people are only able to show sympathy because they lack empathy? Well, the computer is incapable of empathy. You may be wondering, “What is the difference, and why is it important?”

Pity is the essence of sympathy and vice versa. At its core, empathy is compassion. Judgment is at the heart of sympathy. Understanding is the foundation of empathy.

Brene Brown describes sympathy as a way to stay out of touch with our own emotions and make our connections transactional. What a shitty way to live.

Can you level up from sympathy to empathy? Is it possible for you to feel empathy for others who are going through circumstances, emotions, and experiences that are completely foreign to you? Is empathy something that comes from within a person, or can it also be learned?

People that are emotionally intelligent would state that empathy is a feeling you experience on the inside, a characteristic that can be cultivated over time by increasing one’s awareness of both themselves and the world around them. You can begin growing and expanding your capacity for empathy by engaging in activities such as being curious, examining your own prejudices, deeply listening, and learning about the experiences of others through reading, movies, and music. There is a plethora of content available in the form of classes, books, videos, and blog articles that can guide you on that path.

Empathy is not just a quality. It is also a skill. One of the core techniques in the most popular and most powerful counseling techniques in use today, Motivational Interviewing, is Express Empathy. Being empathetic is critical for sustaining and expanding motivation for change. It is noteworthy that this is an outward skill and not an inward quality of the counselor. After all, it is not called FEEL empathy. It is called EXPRESS empathy. Empathy is not some airy-fairy thing you only get when you walk in another person’s shoes. It is something that can be learned. In fact, there is a coding tool called the Motivational Interviewing Treatment Integrity (MITI), where empathy is actually scored based on what a counselor says during a session!

The MITI Coding Manual says this:

“Clinicians high on the Empathy scale show evidence of understanding the client’s worldview in a variety of ways, including complex reflections that seem to anticipate what clients mean but have not said, insightful questions based on previous listening, and accurate appreciation for the client’s emotional state.”

So you don’t have to walk a hundred miles in someone else’s shoes to develop the quality and skill of empathy.

But it takes time. Don’t wait for someone close to you to grieve to prompt you to focus on this skill. It is too late at this point. You will be like the guy who ate hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes, and pizza for 20 years and then eats an apple because he has clogged arteries. You’ll be playing catch-up. It’s no way to serve others in your life.

Start today.

These articles, as well as my book, “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” expose the truth about grief. I am blunt. I don’t sugar-coat what I have discovered about grief and how we deal (and don’t deal) with it. Grief is too important of a topic for me to beat around the bush.

I want you to know that until Brian died and I directly experienced powerful personal grief and loss on a level that completely rocked my world, I had my head up my ass just like some of you reading this article probably do. And I was a therapist. I hurt a lot of people because I didn’t have enough self-awareness and I didn’t have enough empathy. I thoughtlessly bought into the lie that we are told about grieving.

When I wrote the book “Come As You Are: Meditation & Grief,” I thought that my understanding was complete. I was wrong. That is why I continue to share my insights in these articles. Thank you for reading this, and I invite you to learn more about what grief truly is. You can read other posts right here on Medium, and you can get my book in digital, audio, and print versions.



G. Scott Graham

G. Scott Graham is an author, a career coach, a business coach, and a psychedelic support coach in Boston, Massachusetts. http://BostonBusiness.Coach