Q: I don’t know what to say to offer condolences to the mother of two sons who died under tragic circumstances. As an empath, I’m worried she will want my support often, and that I won’t set limits. How can I acknowledge her loss while putting limits on my empathic tendencies?
The first thing I hear is some real self-awareness, which is awesome because you are already ahead of the game. I expect that this has happened to you before, so you know yourself and the risks, and you are being appropriately cautious in what to say with your condolences.
It sounds like you want to reach out, and that feels right to you, so whether or not to do that isn’t your main concern. I think what you really fear is having to say “No” if she engages you. I would say that’s potential guilt talking – the fear that if you say you are unavailable, you will be perceived as uncaring.
Actually, both things can be true. You can be completely empathic, heartfelt and caring, but also not available. In other words, embrace your empathy and express it, but take responsibility for setting your own boundaries on what actions that may relate to.
What many people do when they offer condolences is to include promises when they think of what to say. They feel that words aren’t sufficient, so they want to include action with their comfort. People will usually say things like, “Is there anything I can do for you?” or, “We should get together.”
As an empath, the key for you is to not promise any actions with your condolences. Instead, just connect on your feelings of empathy. The best way to connect is not on a promise, or an activity, but on the emotion.
An example of what to say is, “I wanted you to know I’ve been thinking about you,” or, “My life has been really hectic lately but you’ve been on my mind often.”
If you worry that she may then ask you for action, then plan ahead for your response. What kind of connection are you okay with? For example, would an occasional phone call feel comfortable? How about connecting on social media? Set your own boundaries internally so that you know where to draw the line.
These times of raw emotion are great opportunities for us to dig a little deeper internally and better understand what motivates us.
For example, is this someone you want to reconnect with, and you are nervous about how overwhelming that may feel? Or are you offering condolences because you feel some guilt that you want to put to rest? Or maybe you feel that she is wondering why you haven’t contacted her, and you want her to remember you more fondly.
None of these are right or wrong answers, but understanding your motivation can help determine what to say, and how you structure your condolences. For example, if you want to unburden yourself of feeling guilty, then perhaps you write a simple note and send it in the mail. If your goal is to reconnect, but with boundaries, then maybe you call and offer a tentative plan to meet.
And if she crosses the lines you set, steel yourself and be truthful. You can do this calmly and respectfully, while also acknowledging your limits. What to say? Something like, “My world is crazy right now and I don’t have enough extra bandwidth for that, but I want you to know I’m thinking about you often.” Truly, it is okay for you to just say, “No.”