If you look at the greeting card display in the supermarket, a majority of the products are designed for happy occasions. Birthdays, holidays, graduations, anniversaries. Joy is inherent to these events (except birthdays, depending on who you ask), and it’s easy enough to share that joy.

Of course, there is always a smaller section of greeting cards reserved for sympathies and get-well-soons. These are the situations where finding the right words to say, or the right gift to give, is considerably more difficult. A well-written message and a bouquet of flowers are a nice way to express solidarity – and yet, often at times, we can’t help wishing there was something more we could do. We tend to express this very idea in sympathy cards. We write things like: “I am here for you,” “let me know if there is anything I can do,” or even “no words can express how sorry I am for your loss.”

We want to do more because we know the human experience can be difficult, and that we ourselves could experience hardship at any moment. In other words, when some around us is suffering, we feel empathy. But how does empathy work, and how does it shape our actions?

Empathy in action

Our ability to feel empathy can be understood in different ways. Science points to an area of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus. It allows us to decouple our emotions from our own present state, and when it’s functioning well, we feel genuine empathy for the struggles of another human being – even if we’re feeling happy and stable in our own lives. Psychologists call this “emotional empathy.”

There is another type of empathy – known as cognitive empathy – that involves our ability to accurately imagine what others are going through. Some people are naturally good at cognitive empathy. Others require more practice.

However we describe or categorise empathy, we all know the power of being able to draw on our own experience. We don’t need anybody in a lab coat to confirm this. If a friend or loved one is experiencing hardship, the memory of our own past struggles can help us to develop a clearer picture of what that person is going through, and take meaningful action to support them.

The value of wellness in difficult times

Think about a difficult event (even something as common as a breakup) that totally disrupted your daily life. You couldn’t sleep. You didn’t feel like eating. Daily chores were neglected. Self-care took a back seat as raw emotions washed over you. Maybe there was an illness involved, or a death in the family, and your schedule grew hectic. There weren’t enough hours in the day, and you found it impossible to keep up.

When you look back, what were the gestures that made the most difference? Probably the ones that supported your wellness. A friend brought you a healthy meal, or booked a masseuse to visit your home. A family member drove you to the doctor. A neighbour gave you a heartfelt recommendation for art or music therapy. A co-worker suggested a guided meditation course, or covered your household chores, or took your dog to the groomer.

The fact is, when a human being feels overwhelmed by a difficult event – a divorce, an illness, the loss of a loved one – personal wellness is often the first thing to go. When we’re struggling with the basic nuts and bolts of life, how are we supposed to nourish ourselves on a deeper level?

The empathy of others, expressed through meaningful actions, can make all the difference. It reminds us that we are loved and valued. It restores our sense of connectedness, healing, and hope. Cards and flowers will always have meaning; but there are moments when our heart’s desire is to provide a deeper level of wellness and support. The Helping Hub exists for those moments.

Learn more about THH wellness services for someone you care about.