In April, I found myself in a situation I felt wholly unprepared to handle. In mere hours I found myself whipsawed from vague concern for an employee to the sad certainty of loss as I was told that she had passed away. At the time I felt too raw to share the moment in this blog. No matter how I considered it, it felt wrong.
It wasn’t my story to tell.
The biggest grief wasn’t mine.
It wasn’t about me.
Instead, I sought comfort from my mother, tucked her support around me like a blanket, and focused outward. I shared the heartbreaking news within my organization and quietly connected with the members of my team to make sure they were ok. I wrote a letter to her family, expressing my condolences and sharing how highly their daughter / sister / niece / cousin had been regarded for her capabilities and her kindness. I tried to ignore the meme that popped on my Facebook feed that said, “Don’t work yourself to death, your company will have you replaced in a week if you die.” I choked down the resentment and took a deep breath knowing it wasn’t personal. They couldn’t know that the woman who had smiled at me over lunch a week earlier would never be replaced.
I just kept living, understanding acutely that my life was a gift that not everyone had.
It went on like that until yesterday when I found myself sitting in a martial arts dojo. The warm wood under my feet and mats and punching bags were a backdrop as we watched a life in slide show. The pictures that flashed were of the woman that I had known only briefly in business shown living her real life: smiling with friends around a table, traveling the world, fiercely determined in a crisp white karate gi.
One by one friends and family shared their authentic moments of love. I could see the woman I knew reflected in each story and I felt each piece of a complex puzzle falling into place. Her uncle spoke of a family created beyond blood and his joy in knowing she had been loved in her adopted home. Her closest friends talked about trips taken, holiday gatherings, house hunting and movies — the day-in-day out trappings of lives gratefully inter-twined over many years. Individuals who had trained with her talked about the strength of her jab and the comfort of her hugs.
It struck me in that moment, and throughout the night, that it is rare to be given a glimpse of a whole person. It is much more common to see only a part of someone: the worker, the mother, the athlete, the student, the boss, the blog writer. Our lives are like a house with many locked rooms. The people that we know start with one key — the key given them by shared circumstances — while we move throughout the house interacting in one room at a time. Sometimes, we give a key to a person and allow them to walk with us into another room. The employee who is also a friend. The teammate we invite to a family reunion. The blogger who is also a classmate from college. Those keys are a gift of trust and the people we trust the most often have the heaviest key rings.
As I have moved up in my career it has felt harder and harder to open the doors of my house to others. I struggle to find the right balance between being open and engaged without being intrusive. The relative ease with which we open doors when we are young and on a level playing field is challenged when hierarchy emerges. Now, I don’t ask people at work to connect via social media, not because I don’t care about them as whole people, but because I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to say yes because of my role. It feels safer for everyone to keep the door locked.
It might have been that way with my colleague, locked together in the white-walled drop ceilinged work room, if she hadn’t offered me a few keys to her house. She let me peak into her karate and self-defense room. We sat for long talks in the Michigan room, cheering and consoling over the Detroit Lions. She invited me into her career aspirations room for lunch chats about where she wanted to go and how we could work together to get her there. In the moments after her passing I wondered whether I had made a difference in her life. I cried grateful tears when a colleague shared in an instant message that she had often spoken of how much she loved our talks.
We all hold the spare keys to our life on a key chain, choosing each day to keep them to ourselves or stick our fingernails in the split ring and push the key around until it falls off into our hand. I hope that I’m making the right choices, choices that reflect the truest measure of my respect, admiration, and caring for the people who I am fortunate enough to meet.