They entered the horror of death alongside us.
Sympathy is the most meaningful helplessness in the world.
When I was seventeen, my brother died.
We were attending a beach birthday party on a sunny day in late August when he and two other friends decided to take a dip in the freezing Northern California surf. Realizing the danger they were in after spending too long in the water, the friends were able to make it back to the beach just in time to realize how hefty their hypothermia had become. My brother, however, did not wash up on shore until the next morning.
All of my memories from the day he died until his funeral a week or so later have a distant, deadened quality to them. I could sense feelings were happening peripherally, but they lacked definition. I can’t remember a single conversation, but I know I had them. The markers of life lay smothered under the confusion of loss.
People from all segments of our life materialized at our house every day during that surreal week. They didn’t call to schedule a time to drop by; they just showed up. Food magically appeared on the kitchen counter. Youth group kids loitered freely in our yard and living room. Random people from church and my dad’s coworkers came and went in soothing waves.
Our community was performing the ancient rite of sympathy, and what a fearful rite it can be. The brave souls that visited our house knew no amount of visiting or hugs or casseroles could bring my brother back. At the same time, all involved instinctively knew their willingness to enter into our nightmare with hugs and awkward silences and Costco lasagnas was the only way we were going to survive it. Their active despair on our behalf was unassuming and powerful and a depiction of the inmost heart of God. There is nothing quite like sympathy: it is the most meaningful helplessness in the world.
One of the words for sympathy (and there are several, of course) in the Greek text of the Bible is translated into English as “suffer,” so its nuanced meaning is easy to miss. The word is sympaschō, and its definition is “to feel pain together, to suffer evils in like manner with one another” (emphasis mine). Leave it to Greek to develop a word that intertwines suffering and community so snugly that they cannot be teased apart.
Almost as if it were planned, this word is used twice in the New Testament: once to denote the future blessings that await those who suffer for and with Christ, and once to describe the present calling to suffer for and with our community (Romans 8:16–17; 1 Corinthians 12:26). Sympaschō widens out our view of sympathy until it is all-of-life encompassing, sacramentally important, and eternally precious. It helps us see how choosing to share in the burden of another person is of immense value to the God of the Universe.
Scripture confirms this over and over in the person of Christ. Engaging in the felt pain of others, both first and secondhand, was a noticeable part of Jesus’s mission while on earth (Philippians 2:4–8). Hebrews calls him the High Priest who chose to let himself be “touched with the feelings of our infirmities,” and Isaiah’s prophecies about Jesus point repeatedly to the bearing of grief as one of his defining characteristics (Hebrews 4:15; Isaiah 53:3–4, 10–11). Of all things, Jesus boldly took up the heavy, gracious garland of sympathy while he walked this earth, and he wears it still as he sits at his Father’s right hand (Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:2).
Despite how important having a deeply felt understanding of another’s grief is to God, in practice on earth it can seem frustratingly inadequate. In the moment, when we are face-to-face with the hardship of a loved one, it’s easy to see sympathy as too small to count for anything.
It’s just a small visit.
Just a wordless hug.
Just a tray of enchiladas.
It’s just a feeling, for crying out loud.
But, incredibly, as we allow the pain of others to carve a path into the sensitive parts of our own hearts, we join the mission Jesus deliberately engaged in while he was here on earth (Matthew 10:24). When we weep with those who weep, we are Christ to the weeper (Matthew 25:40).
The exercise of sympathy, as with many spiritual practices, is not just about helping our loved ones: it is also about us. Sympathy changes us. It mercifully distracts us from our own weary troubles so we can focus on the grander reality of the life, death, and resurrection going on around us. Under its influence, we are empowered to embrace the distress of our neighbor even if we are unsure of how to help. Only God could use something so awkwardly gentle to help create in us the image of his Son.
When I think back to the death of my brother, I remember the shock and cavernous grief viscerally. He died in 2001, yet to this day I dissolve into a puddle of blubbery tears if I talk or even think too freely about that day in late August. The tears are near because the pain never dissipated fully. But the bulk of my actual memories from his passing are of the people who chose to enter the horror of his death alongside us. What I recall most about my brother dying is the love of the sympathizers.
I remember my two best friends standing in my driveway a day or two after he died. Everything was so harried and upended I hadn’t even had a chance to notice them, and then someone in the house told me they were standing out front. As I walked toward them from my gate, they just stared at me from beneath the soft, holy shade of immense sympaschō. I embraced them, still wordless. When I think about my brother’s death, I think of my two friends in the driveway.
This is what we give to one another when we sympathize: redefined memories. Suffering mauls the heart of the sufferer and sets what’s left of it adrift, but sympathy provides that heart an anchor—we may not know it’s holding us in place in the moment, but we can always find it later as we look for what’s moored us all this time. Sympathy sends us to the side of our wounded companion so that the ache of injury is not the only material lying around when that shattered spirit is ready to rebuild itself.
And most importantly, sympathy provides us the honor of inviting Christ into our respective agonies, the same Christ who wept when Mary, the sister of Lazarus, crumbled to her knees in front of him and said, “Lord, if you had only been here” (John 11:32–34). He already knew how the story would end. He knew, just this one time, that the lost brother would be restored to the grieving sister. But he wept anyway. His tears validated and dignified her pain, as they do even now when he sees us suffer. We are all apportioned this bread and wine—this blessed communion of mutual grief—knowing “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
 Blue Letter Bible, “G4841 - Sympaschō - Strong’s Greek Lexicon (Kjv)” (n.d): https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4841/kjv/tr/0-1/.
Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez.