By: Rima Fadlallah, MBA ’20

In January, I attended what would be my favorite Ross Leaders Academy (RLA) session all year (and I love RLA sessions). This session, in particular, was on empathy. Towards the middle of the session, we started a group discussion on what empathy meant to us. When it was time to transition to another activity, the Sanger Leadership Center staff facilitators felt our need to continue unpacking our opinions on empathy and decided to ditch the slides, encouraging us to continue this fruitful discussion. I thought this game-time decision in itself was a perfect example of what empathy can feel like in the real world. Let me explain.

Things seldom go as planned: AKA “life happens.” When I think about the number of times that life happens to me on the daily, I know I can’t possibly be the only one to whom life pays its unexpected visits. And this understanding alone humbles me: I always try to remind myself that I may never know how many times “life” has happened to my classmate, to my Uber driver, to the person sitting by me on the airplane, to my professors.

As a former control freak, I had to learn this difficult lesson two years ago when my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Two years before my dad passed, my cousin Bilal lost his father due to cancer.

The morning my father passed, my cousin Bilal reached out to me and my siblings sending his condolences and assuring us that he would be there for us during this difficult time. We responded by thanking him for his kind words: “if anyone understands what we’re going through Bilal, it’s you and your family.”    

Bilal’s response still blows me away: “I love you and your family, but I do not understand what you’re going through. Nobody understands what you’re going through.”

Two years in and I can officially say that Bilal was right. Nobody understands how I feel, and that’s okay. Each one of my family members and I have dealt with grief in entirely different ways. It creeps in at different moments. We each have our own triggers. Our dreams and nightmares do not look nor sound the same. Grieving the same exact person has stained each of our lives so uniquely. It’s actually kind of beautiful, to have something so deeply personal to me; something I only wish to share with God and my father.

While some people may feel like Bilal’s response was grim, to my brother and me, it was so real, raw and somehow hopeful.

Bilal’s wisdom that day taught me that “getting it” is overrated. Grief has transformed my perception of empathy, and our RLA conversation really highlighted this shift in my perspective. While many of us discussed the value in walking in others’ shoes, I felt the need to echo Bilal’s sentiment and emphasize those moments when we will realistically never be able to walk a mile—let alone a minute—in another person’s shoes. While it assumes a lack of understanding, this kind of empathy gives me so much hope for humanity because it relies on a willingness to listen and learn, even and especially when we can never understand.

As for me, I am now at a point where the only thing I plan for is uncertainty (gotta plan for something!). Life happens to all of us, and we may not understand. But we don’t have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to empathize. Sometimes, we can leave behind our desire to understand, and instead, listen and learn as we walk a mile with them in our own shoes. I am grateful for these lessons and opportunities, and especially grateful for RLA providing me a space to unpack, refine, and practice these learnings as life continues to happen to us.

Rima Headshot
Rima I. Fadlallah, MBA Candidate at Michigan Ross, Class of 2020

Grief has transformed my perception of empathy, and our RLA conversation really highlighted this shift in my perspective.

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