The Power of Public Mourning

Listeners of the ‘Death, Sex & Money’ podcast were invited to hold space for their 2020 losses. Here’s what happened.

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A woman named Virginia sent in a recorded voice memo to us at the Death, Sex & Money podcast recently, responding to a question we asked our audience: What has 2020 taken from you? 

“I turned 30 in 2020,” she began. “And my birthday is actually July 14th, on Bastille Day.” 

A few years ago, Virginia told us, she decided to mark her upcoming birthday milestone by taking her first trip to Paris. “I wanted to do it without getting in any debt,” she said. “So I saved. I paid off all my consumer debt by the time I was 30.” Virginia even bought a camper and lived in it to save money.

But then, 2020 became… 2020. Virginia cancelled her plane tickets. Her birthday came and went. She did not go to Paris. And she doesn’t think she wants to reschedule, at least not anytime soon. “It cannot be the same thing,” she said. “I cannot be turning 30 again.” 

I’m ashamed to say the first time I listened to her recording, I found myself talking back to her in my head. “But Virginia!” I thought. “Look on the bright side! You’re out of debt! You’re in great financial shape! You’ve saved up all this money!” And, I thought to myself… really… couldn’t you go in a year or two?

I was doing that thing so many of us do when we’re confronted with someone else’s disappointment, or loss, or grief. We try to smooth it over, buff it up, turn that frown upside down. We avert our eyes. We refuse to look straight at that pain, and hold its gaze. 

We intentionally asked our listeners to tell us what 2020 took from them. It’s a question that we knew would elicit negative responses of all kinds. We didn’t expect to hear about silver linings, or unexpected wins. We asked to hear about losses. And we did. 

Like from Daniel, who told us he lost friendships and a “sense of belonging” this year after resigning from the board of his kids’ school when they weren’t being cautious enough about COVID. A woman named Fatima, who gave birth on April 8 in New York City, told us she feels robbed of the familial love and joy she thought would surround the arrival of her first child. A listener named Ronald lost his job, then his girlfriend, and then his church community after he got into a disagreement with some of the elders there. “And I mean, that’s like underneath all of the stress from coronavirus, stress from the election, stress from racial unrest,” he told us. “I’m Black, so, dealing with the sudden awakening of millions of white people who all of a sudden have all these questions for you, when I’ve been trying to tell you this this whole time…it just feels hard.”

“What is most important is that in this time of great separation we can lean into understanding each other more and loving more deeply.”

A healthcare worker named Pauline called in about her best friend of 30 years being taken from her, when she died from COVID this spring. It happened while Pauline was frantically trying to keep tabs on hundreds of COVID patients through her job at a New York City hospital. “Here I am trying to save these other patients, make sure they’re okay,” she told us. “And the whole time, my best friend was dying.” 

When I reached out to Pauline to tell her we’d be using her story on our podcast, she wrote back to me right away. “I’m not the type to ever call in to a radio show,” she said. But, she added, this callout felt different. “I think the guilt I felt, and tucking away the pain, made me feel that this was so cathartic for me.” 

While we were working on our latest episode, a montage of these assorted stories of loss, Meghan Markle wrote about her miscarriage in 2020 in a New York Times op-ed called “The Losses We Share.” “When people ask how any of us are doing, and when they really listen to the answer, with an open heart and mind, the load of grief often becomes lighter — for all of us,” she wrote. “In being invited to share our pain, together we take the first steps toward healing.”

In a year when we weren’t able to gather; in a society where grief is often unwelcome; in a pandemic where the loss is too big for us to comprehend; the instinct to push forward and individually and collectively highlight positive outcomes is strong. But as we heard from our listeners at Death, Sex & Money, it’s so important that we first pause, reflect, and really listen to our own losses and those of the humans around us.

“We have all endured varying degrees of loss this year,” a listener named Phylicia wrote on Instagram after we shared her story about losing her mom – her “favorite girl” – to heart failure in 2020. “What is most important is that in this time of great separation we can lean into understanding each other more and loving more deeply. We can’t be all that different from each other if deep down we all know what it feels like to grieve, feel sorrow, and then find joy again even in the smallest things.”


Katie Bishop is the Executive Producer of the ‘Death, Sex and Money’ podcast. Listen to the episode above.

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