One thing that grief has taught me is that even the worst experiences can change us in ways that are positive.
The year 2020 was bad for a lot of reasons I don’t need to talk about—we all know.
Instead of reflecting on the bad, I’m focussing on changes from last year that I’d like to keep with me as I move beyond this time in my life, both on a personal and collective level.
Here the 10 things I would like to keep from 2020:
1. Using outdoor public spaces. My family and I live in the city, and we’re used to a daily life with built-in movement: the walk to school, to friends’ houses, and to the grocery store down the street. When everything shut down, we had to make a conscious effort to get out and move. We noticed so many more people doing the same: out for walks, bike rides, at the park with friends and family (at a distance). I hope we all keep up this appreciation for our outdoor public spaces, so we continue to use them and fund them.
2. Knowing my neighbors. When the pandemic hit, I noticed a shift in the people I came into contact with each day from my pre-pandemic days. Our patterns all changed, and instead of everyone rushing off to work, we were home all day. I suddenly saw the people who live on my street a lot more than I ever did. When the weather was nicer and the infection rates lower, we chatted with each other in our driveways and backyards. Now, we check in through texts and holiday cards, keep an eye on one another’s package deliveries and recycling bins. Other people I’ve spoken with have had similar experiences, and I hope we all continue to cultivate these close-to-home bonds more than we did before.
3. Adventuring with my kids. When a car-free friend rented one for a month, she was determined to get the most use out of their rental. We became day-tripper adventurers with our kids of similar ages and had an amazing time picking conservation areas or beaches along Lake Ontario to explore. Many of our usual summer activities were off-limits in the pandemic, but we managed to discover new places and had a pretty memorable summer in the end.
4. Supporting our local economy. My husband and I owned a retail store for a while, so we know the challenges of running a small business in the best of times. We have felt so bad for our local businesses and made an effort to order out more frequently to support our local eateries. I’ve also made a point of leaving reviews, especially for newer shops, on places like Yelp and Google. For the holidays, I was determined to buy as many presents as possible from our local businesses. I want them to be there when we come out of this pandemic.
5. Reading. I’ve loved reading ever since I could. But as an adult, between school and the early years of parenthood, I haven’t been a particularly voracious reader. That need to escape the mundane day-to-day of the pandemic brought me back to reading in a way I haven’t in many years. And oh man, books are thrilling. I’ve read everything from old favourites like Jane Austen, to new best-sellers (Sally Rooney has liquified me in the best way), to commentaries on white supremacy, and I am re-re-re-hooked on reading.
6. Listening to podcasts. Finding me-time has been a challenge with everyone home all the time. I’ve long wanted to listen to podcasts but never fit them in. Forced to get creative, I realized that when I’m making dinner and the kids are watching TV, I have a window of opportunity. So I started putting in my earbuds and listening to a few amazing podcasts during this time every afternoon. Brené Brown’s “Unlocking Us;” “SmartLess” with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett, and Jared Rizzi’s political commentary in “At the Table” are a few favorites. This podcast practice has become a habit now—and I love it.
7. Renewed self-confidence. 2020 presented most of us with many hardships, and we’ve had to adapt. With 2020’s particular challenges, there were a lot of things that I just had to do. So I did, without really having the option to dither or question myself. It helped that expectations for just about everything evaporated in all this uncertainty, and people have been rather forgiving as we’ve all shrugged and said, “2020.” As one of my science teachers used to say, “Expect nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.”
In 2021, I plan to keep my 2020 successes with me, like publishing my first book, as a reminder that even when I doubt myself, I can do hard things.
For the record, homeschooling my kids was not one of these accomplishments, though. I would still never homeschool by choice—teachers are heroes, and we should pay them more.
8. Connecting through technology. When the internet and social media first entered our lives, we largely saw these things as tools of connection. It was exciting and inspiring. More recently, though, we’ve seen these same tools deepen divisions over the fault lines of politics and world view.
But in this pandemic, we were forced to connect through our technology, and we got really inventive with it. We Zoomed with family we don’t often call. We had trivia nights with friends who live in different cities—and those who live around the corner. We held events, parties, karaoke, theatre, fundraisers, and all sort of activities delivered through the Internet.
Yes, Zoom fatigue is real, and no, it’s not a replacement. But these pandemic experiences have renewed my faith in the power of these tools and given me hope that if we can sort out these growing pains of civil discourse on the internet, we may yet return to that early promise of connection and community.
9. An expanded fight for racial justice. The fight for racial justice reached a new level this year, with more white folks coming to understand how white supremacy is an insidious virus in our society that continues to harm non-white people. Though we are far from eradicating this virus, it feels to me like we’ve edged a bit closer, with more white people committing to understanding how racism is our problem to fix.
This list is not meant to downplay the sh*tty things that happened this year, in particular, all the lives that have been lost. Embracing the positives doesn’t mean we ignore the terrible things that have happened.
But, to me, grief is the process of integrating a loss into our lives. In fact, through the work of Dr. David Kessler, we now recognize meaning as the sixth stage of grief. I don’t mean the platitude that everything happens for a reason, but the idea that in order to live with loss, we can find elements of the experience that change us in positive ways. The loss doesn’t inherently have meaning—rather, we have to create meaning out of it. This enables us to accept the reality of the loss without getting stuck in it.
On that note, I have one more takeaway from 2020 for all of us:
10. Appreciating and building community. In the aftermath of 9/11, we faced collective grief and trauma. But I don’t think we managed it well; it left us scarred in ways that have divided us ever since.
This election year exposed those divisions more than ever. At the same time, the forced isolation of the pandemic has reminded us, bluntly, how vital our connections with others are. We’ve learned that while digital tools can help bridge our distances in remarkable ways, there’s no replacing the ways we’ve always come together to be present with one another.
I hope that instead of getting mired in the grief and trauma of this experience as we did after 9/11, we find the kernels of meaning and the simple, essential truth of our need for connection so that we can come out of this changed for the better.