2020 Forced Us to Get Honest About Grief. Now What?

Nearly two weeks ago, the world celebrated its escape from 2020. There were virtual gatherings toasting its long-awaited demise. There were exercise classes blasting ’NSync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” a Netflix special entitled Death to 2020, and New Year’s cards declaring, “Um…let’s never do that again, ok?” John Oliver, frankly, wished it the most appropriate farewell of all.

After the most miserable year a lot of us can remember, we looked to 2021 with fervent hopes that a fresh start might restore our well-being and equilibrium. We planned to put 2020 in a lockbox and hurl it into the sea. 

But as the first full week of 2021 proved, terrifying news simply does not abide by the Gregorian calendar. And grief is a forever thing—one worth sitting with, examining, and learning from so that we can better care for ourselves and others moving forward.

As women who have dedicated their careers to normalizing living with loss and helping people find joy and purpose along the way, we have a professional obligation to consider how the past year has changed how we grieve. Some of it has been agonizing. But some of it has been illuminating. Even after we’re able to hug and to hold one another and to bear witness in three dimensions when the pandemic recedes, we can take with us new ways to remember loved ones, share our pain, and offer support.

Take, for example, the recent funeral of a mutual friend who died of cancer. Instead of dressing up to pay our respects in person, we joined from our homes, workplaces and cars, and wore whatever we’d thrown on that morning. During the service, her parents, siblings, and closest friends were on Zoom, and the rest of us followed the live stream on YouTube.

We watched from 500 different screens, sharing memories of our friend in the live chat function. The comments ranged from poignant to hilarious. When family members offered eulogies, there was an immediate flood of support and heart emojis. That was beautiful, they wrote. I love you.

As the rabbi chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish, and as we clung to the dwindling moments of connection—not quite ready to log off, not quite sure how to resume the day—a friend typed into the chat: “I hope every funeral forever will have comments, this is so lovely.” And it was.

The funeral was an example of how forward-facing our personal and collective grief has become this past year. In 2020, there was no hiding it. The scale of our losses was too great: Some 350,000 Americans were killed by COVID alone, George Floyd suffocated before our eyes, Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her own home. The stories of these souls filled obituary pages and news reports, beautiful and mundane. She had a memorable laugh, he never turned down a game of pickleball, she bought her gifts on QVC, his high school teammates called him “Big Friendly.” Floyd’s and Taylor’s faces graced protest signs and street murals and magazine covers.

Look at me, grief commanded. I’m everywhere.

It was the year we saw those with enormous influence open up about their pregnancy losses, long referred to as “the silent sorrow.” The model and entrepreneur Chrissy Teigen shared with her more than 30 million Instagram followers raw hospital room photos, including one of her cradling her dead baby, Jack. Two months later, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex—who married into a family known more than any other for its stiff upper lip—described in a New York Times op-ed the moment she knew she was having a miscarriage and the “almost unbearable grief” that followed. She went on to encourage the rest of us to reach out to one another, to ask this small but meaningful question: Are you OK?

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