Real empathy is always healing

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President Biden at the national memorial ceremony for the 400,000 people who died of Covid-19. (Youtube screenshot.)

Watching Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ memorial to the Covid-19 dead, one would almost think we’ve returned to a point close to normalcy, to a President who does the right thing not just because it’s their duty, but because they actively want to. Imagine that, a President who wants to help people. For the last four years, it has been a foreign concept.

Even though we are embarking on a new era in American history, and even though we are — hopefully — emerging from a truly dark time, it’s important to remember all that we’ve been missing for the past four years. Chief among them, empathy.

Real empathy is when a person places themselves in the pain that another person is feeling. For those who have experienced a similar event to the grieving person, such as a death of a loved one, or the trauma of assault or discrimination, it can be easy to empathize and understand where the grief comes from. But even if someone has not experienced a similar trauma as the grieving person, it’s still very possible to be empathetic. Joe Biden, with the tremendous loss he has faced in his life, is able to grieve and empathize with those who have lost loved ones due to Covid. He’s able to empathize with anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them. Kamala Harris, too, with all that she has faced in her life, is likewise able to empathize with people.

That’s why it was easy to feel their emotion as they stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial Tuesday night and looked out onto the hundreds of lights set up along the Reflecting Pool. Beyond what was said, just the way they stood, heads bowed, eyes closed, faces clearly in pain over the incredible and unnecessary loss of life, was a clear act of empathy. It was a healing moment, and hopefully it will be one of many to come.

Real empathy is always healing. It’s the reason why, at funerals, when one person cries, it often sets off a chain reaction, and many other people cry too. We are able to cope with our pain and with our grief if we have people to share it with. Most people cannot do it alone. As a nation, we’ve experienced collective grief on multiple fronts. And we’ve been forced to watch as the man elected to lead us paraded around like it was nothing. We’ve been forced, nearly, to forget what empathy from our leaders is like.

Thankfully, President Biden won’t act as if grief and pain are nothing. He won’t shy away from it. He knows the power of empathy, and he knows the power of when it’s shown publicly, for all to see. An act of empathy is an act of vulnerability. That’s why it’s so valuable, why it’s so refreshing, and why it’s so necessary right now. From all the hours, months, years of putting on a brave face while trying to keep ourselves and our families safe, we are exhausted. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve lost a lot. We need to grieve and to share that grief. It’s comforting to know that the people leading us understand that and are willing to put in the real, difficult work in grieving with us.

Things won’t improve right away, but on day one of the Biden administration, they look far, far brighter.