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 hope 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 livestream 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 okay?
She’s right. There’s more impact than you might think in checking in with those who are suffering, asking if they are okay and, importantly, sticking around for the answer, even when it’s uncomfortable to hear. Especially when it’s uncomfortable to hear.
It was also the year that social distancing made it impossible for us to seek out many of the communal supports we had come to rely on during sad and scary times.
The past decade has primed us for this moment, as innovations around death and grief have found audiences online. Recent years have given way to livestreamed conferences about end of life as well as online events for the young and bereaved, to Instagram accounts about surviving miscarriage, podcasts that plumb grief’s long arc, and viral illustrations about what grief feels like. It has given way to grief-centric storytelling platforms like ours, Modern Loss, which we founded together in 2013. So many of us share a common goal—destigmatizing candid conversations about grief.
Now the pandemic has kicked a cracked door wide open. At the same time, it has moved collective grief almost entirely online: goodbyes and funerals and wakes and shivas and therapy sessions and support groups. We know that a video call is a poor substitute for presence, that heart emojis can’t even begin to replace hugs. We know much has been lost.
In a little more than a week, a man who has been living with loss for most of his adult life will take the oath of the highest office in the United States. Joe Biden has spoken from some of the world’s biggest stages about losing his wife and young daughter in a car accident and, decades later, his grown son to cancer. The president-elect has been known to offer his phone number to grieving strangers who pour out their hearts on the rope lines. He is the rare politician who sees power in vulnerability.
Biden’s inauguration will take place with 2020 in the rearview mirror, but with millions still mourning in the present tense and some of the pandemic’s darkest days ahead. It’s a new year, same grief. So what from a decidedly hellish 2020 can we take with us into 2021?
We’ll take the ability to mourn meaningfully—and seek out support—from afar. Because long after COVID, there will be those unable to travel for a funeral for reasons of disability, financial constraints, or immigration status. There will be those who can’t make an in-person therapy session or support group meeting because of illness, care-taking responsibilities, or an unforgiving work schedule.
We’ll gladly leave 2020 behind, along with all it has stolen from us. But we’ll take the newfound candor. We’ll take the healthy role models of grief at every level. And yes, we’ll take the comments section.
Rebecca Soffer is cofounder of Modern Loss, co-author of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome and author of the forthcoming The Modern Loss Handbook. She is based in New York City.
Gabrielle Birkner is cofounder of Modern Loss and co-author of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome. She is a journalist based in Los Angeles.
Originally Appeared on Glamour