Years ago, I worked for a leader who had no empathy for employees who experienced the death of a family member. That sounds cruel, but it’s true. She would express a trite “sorry-for-your-loss” phrase and move on to the business at hand. She expected they would continue their work, with no hiccups, no lapses in memory or concentration, and no expressions of sadness.

Daily, she polished putting on a show of ultra-professionalism. She expected the same of others, for anything less was viewed as weak.

Then, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Because “Irene” lived closest (her siblings were spread around the country), she became the decision maker and caretaker. Initially, she treated it like another project, thoroughly planning the best care she could provide. But her mother declined rapidly. Eventually, Irene had to decide whether to allow a feeding tube. She labored over the decision: keep her alive artificially even though she would not get better or let her body shut down on its own schedule. I knew what she was going through because she opened up to me about it.

She decided to let her mother go, thinking it was the most caring thing to do. But she was distraught over the decision until she passed. Then, though she tried to stay focused on her work, it was clear she was not herself. She had changed.

From then on, Irene responded with empathy when an employee experienced the serious illness or death of a loved one. Only because she had experienced it herself could she begin to feel what others went through.

Amazingly, she had reached her middle years with no one close to her dying. I’d known death of loved ones since I was a young girl. I knew what it felt like to have the equivalent of a fully-grown tree ripped out of your chest, roots and all.

I tell you this true story because it is so important for us to try to put ourselves in another’s shoes (or at least attempt to) so that we begin to understand what they have experienced. We can’t expect to actually feel it (although some are able to), but we can empathize if we at least try to understand what they’ve experienced.

Every description I read of black people suffering indignities, unfairness and worse – subtle and direct, quietly and yelled, personally as well as family, friends, neighbors, community members – makes me empathize and want to do something to effect change so that it stops.

Only when we all have an understanding of what our colleagues and others are / have experienced will we be able to get on a better track as a nation. I hope sharing these thoughts with you gives you pause to consider those around you who may have pain from heart breaking loss, injustice, fear you never have. Expressing empathy is a first step.

If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here for you.

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