"Je ne savais comment l'atteindre, où le rejoindre... C'est tellement mystérieux le pays des larmes." -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(Translation: I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him... The land of tears is so mysterious." from The Little Prince)
There is more to empathy than just taking on another person's feelings. It's about being open to how someone might feel, without judgment or assumption. It's about actively listening, and then really thinking about what you say and whether it really needs to be said. Sometimes, the best way to listen is silently. Sometimes, listening takes patience- every ounce of it! Because given space and quiet, a person will talk when they're ready. Or, they won't, and that's okay too. Silence can be calming and a time to reflect and process.
I see this all the time in music therapy sessions with children when a parent is present. I often use harmonic expectation to create a moment for the child to express himself; an easy example is playing through a blues form in E and landing on the B7 chord and then just waiting. The natural inclination of the Western ear is to finish that musical sentence, and it almost always works. With children and adults alike, they'll sing that last note given the freedom within the structure. But so many times when a caregiver is present, I hit that penultimate chord and wait, and suddenly a face appears right in front of the child, waving a tambourine and loudly saying, "Sing!" This is frustrating, sure, but more than that it's just unnecessary. Whether anyone else in the room realizes it or not, the expectation to participate in the music is created within the music. There's no need to say anything. In fact, I've had entire sessions where I said nothing at all outside of singing.
I notice this behavior quite often, caregivers trying to push their loved ones along in therapy- I don't discourage it, because of course the caregiver knows the client much better than I do. So I'm always interested to see if they have a technique to reach the client that could be really helpful for me to use. More often than not, they don't. That's no fault on the caregiver, and they always mean well- they just haven't learned how to wait and listen. I think this often stems from their feeling somewhat shocked and embarrassed by their loved one, particularly if there has been a loss in function (from a brain injury, dementia, etc.), and then feeling like this loss is somehow a reflection on them.
It isn't. Here's the biggest thing about empathy- realizing, and subsequently reminding oneself, that "this isn't about me". If you're into the idea of interconnectedness and all people being one then sure, it is about you... All the more reason to listen.
One of the first times I learned about empathy was in second grade, a classmate of mine had a sick mom and was sitting alone on the playground, crying. I patted her on the back and I think I said something like, "it's ok, I know how you feel." She looked up angrily and said, "no you don't!" Leave it to second graders to be completely honest! And she was right, I had no idea. Even if I had had the same Happening, I didn't have the same experience of the happening.
I've reached a point where if I'm working in a palliative setting, and meeting a family member for the first time, I never say, "I'm so sorry." When a loved one passes away, I may feel sad about death but the caregiver could feel any range of things including sad, anger, relief, even gladness. If I introduce myself with "I'm so sorry", this begets the assumption that they must be sad, and gives that person the automatic feeling that any other emotion must be wrong and therefore not expressed. This is the opposite of a therapeutic relationship. So instead, I wait and I listen and I gather information, and if advice is requested an appropriate response can be offered. If you are feeling sorry and you want to say it, find the reason you're sorry and make sure you say that too: "I'm so sorry that you're going through so much." Make sure your reason is something they've actually expressed. Simply saying "I'm sorry" is actually saying "I'm feeling sorry for myself because your loss is bringing up my own loss which was a very sad one."