Thirty years later, after my father died, a dear colleague told me that losing my dad would make me more empathetic to my students and others. I was too mired in my own pain to understand what she meant.
In the year after my dad died, my community suffered the loss of two students to a car crash, and then our principal to a sudden heart condition. And then two of my students lost their own parents. I believe experiencing such a profound loss myself allowed me to empathize more fully than I could have, in a time when empathy was desperately needed.
Early on in my teaching career, a speaker at a conference said that we should never compare atrocities, because suffering is suffering. He was talking about comparing the Holocaust to slavery in America. He was saying that we should never say one was worse than the other. The suffering of a Jew at Auschwitz and the suffering of an African brought to America in a slave ship cannot be compared to say that one is worse. The suffering of any human is their own singular experience.
My life has been generally easy, certainly compared to the tremendous suffering of humans throughout history and around the world today. My own pain, while not remotely on the same plane as slavery or the Holocaust, still gives me a window into all human pain.
Looking back at the losses I have experienced, I can now see how each one gave me empathy. My first boyfriend who broke my heart, various teachers and employers who said demeaning, discouraging things, the miscarriage I had and then the months following that it took for me to get pregnant again, each of those experiences gave me windows into those suffering from heartbreak, discouragement and infertility.
I know that the longer I live, the more losses I will experience. Such is the nature of a long life filled with loving other humans. I no longer fear the pain the Dread Pirate Roberts warned of. I hope that when those losses come I will have the strength to survive them, the humility to know that I’m just one person in a world full of pain and the wisdom to know that each one will gift me with empathy.