A Note from the Editor
Recently while perusing my Facebook Memories, I was reminded that one year ago everyone was doing the “Decade Challenge”—sharing a photo of yourself from 2009, and then one from 2019, showing how much you had changed.
I mused to myself that we should do a “Decade Challenge” again, except with photos from the beginning and end of 2020. After all, it sure as hell ~feels~ like 2020 was a decade long.
However, as we wrap up this undeniably strange and memorable year, I don’t really want to look back. I want to look forward. To a time in the not-so-distant future where coronavirus vaccines will be readily available to all; to dine at my favorite Mexican restaurant for the first time in over a year, eating the crap out of some chips and salsa and sipping a jumbo margarita; to visit with family and friends once more, without the nagging fear that someone may be a silent virus carrier; to realize that we are out of the woods, and to relish in the accomplishment that we survived this defining period in our lives.
Our guest writer, P. Kim Bui, has had a harder year than most—she lost her husband suddenly in June, during a time when grief, an already lonely and complex journey, is even more complicated because of a pandemic. In this essay, she shares how she’s learned to appreciate smaller moments and be more present; the comfort that comes from a collective understanding of grief after this year; and that while a new year isn’t much of a milestone in terms of a cosmic event, even the smallest shifts in our journeys give rise to opportunities for transformation.
Bui is a sought-out presenter on digital journalism and leadership, and her writings on empathy in journalism have been featured in numerous research publications. You can find her other essays at Incoherent Notes.
It usually starts this way: “OMG I’m so sorry, I should not be complaining to you about my problems. They pale in comparison to yours.”
Ah yes, I think. Possibly true. My husband died this year, a month before our two-year anniversary. In the middle of a pandemic.
In these moments, when I can feel pity riding in and overwhelming friendships, I am reminded that personal grief is also collective grief, especially this year. When Katie asked me to guest-write the December issue of My Sweet Dumb Brain, I knew it would come at the close of possibly the hardest year in many of our lives, and at the dawn of a year with higher hopes and expectations.
This year has been terrible. We’ve all lost something. I lost my person. My best friend, my partner. Others lost a sister, a grandfather, an uncle. Some lost jobs. Their homes. Kids lost their educations. Many lost the ability to partake in the outside world without fear. Last week, cities, states, and countries hit record-breaking days of coronavirus cases and deaths. We retreat into isolation again. Whatever the loss, we are mourning something.
I had this essay written out, and it talked about loss and how we all move forward from it. But then the magic of technology somehow deleted it, and I find myself here, typing in a hopefully safer Google doc, thinking instead about what we’ve gained.
There are hidden gifts in grief. That sounds incredible to say, only a few months after I collapsed into my best friend’s arms, after I wailed nononono in a cold hospital room and then paced my house looking for someone who was never going to be there again.
Justin, my husband, was always on me to be in the moment. Put down your phone. Stop playing Candy Crush. Have dinner with me. Sit with me. Be here. As a journalist who spent most of her career in breaking news, that felt…impossible. There was so much happening, so much to process and sort through. So much to see and do. We would have a lifetime of dinners together, I’d say. This email is more important. We will have a date night soon, I’d deflect, I’d have time then.
Justin’s last physical gift to me was a package of gummy bears and a Nintendo Switch. His last personal gift to me was the knowledge that we do not have unlimited moments. We need to hold each one close.
It is in my grief that I am finding parts of myself that I could never get close to before. I feel gratitude for my friends and family and can truly say that, when I used to have a hard time listing “three things that make you grateful.” I am finding peace in being alive this second, and I can almost feel Justin smile—that I finally got the message.
With my grief therapist, I am exploring mindfulness and finding humility in not being an expert, because as she says, “We can only do the best we can in the moment we’re in, with the resources we have.” I am trying to judge myself less, because there is no *right* way to grieve, because no one has done this before. No one has done this particular set of circumstances, because all moments are unique. Mindfulness, for me, is less like meditation and more sitting with it all, the guilt and sadness and pain and awkwardness. Letting it all sink in.
Many would think resilience is the gift of this year. And yes, I see strength in everyone I know. But that strength was always there—it had just been a while since some of us were tested. Loss crystalizes what is important. We find ourselves reminded that being bored is a boon for creativity. The gift may be that we can learn to make sourdough. Or that while Zoom school is frustrating, we have more time with our kids.
In a strange twist, I also find myself having lots of conversations about how people are truly understanding that grief is not X-many stages or a linear progression. It is a state, an unwelcome companion through life, a visible scar that so many of us will have from living through this year. If nothing else, we all now know how to talk about grief. We all have a base understanding of this eternal crashing of wave after wave of emotion. We all know what feeling undone and being a ghost in your former life and a wreck in your current one means. We have all been broken. We all know what it is to mend, but never be the same.
My first name (Phuong) is Vietnamese for “phoenix.” I have often thought of it as an apt representation of me. I’ve been through a lot and risen from ashes. But what I have never thought about until recently was that the phoenix never re-emerges the same. We grow. We change. My heart is missing a piece, and forever will. But something else will grow in its place.
Everywhere, 2020 has become synonymous with a horrible and unanticipated year, so the expectation is that 2021 has to be better. But the only literal difference between 2020 and 2021 is a slight movement of the Earth relative to the sun. However, as the clock shifts from 11:59 p.m., December 31, to 12 a.m., January 1, we embark on a new year with growth. And hope.
Reflecting on 2020
As the Earth spins onward into a new revolution around the sun, so do we all. This particular trip around our star has been one we are unlikely to forget. Even if you didn’t have COVID-19 or lose someone to it personally, perhaps your lifestyle and family structure have been forever changed by it. You might have participated in demonstrations for social justice, or seen natural disasters more up-close-and-personal than ever.
What are the standout moments—good or bad—that have defined 2020 for you?
Share your response by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending a message.
Our editor, Becca, will compile your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter. (And don’t forget! You can receive Thursday newsletters by subscribing for $5/month or $35/year.)
This issue of My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by P. Kim Bui, the director of audience innovation at The Arizona Republic. A native Iowan, she’s focused her career on leading real-time news initiatives and creating new storytelling forms for media companies. She writes a syndicated newsletter for emerging leaders and managers, The Middles. She lives in Phoenix with a menagerie of two cats, a dog, and too many houseplants.
My Sweet Dumb Brain is edited by Rebecca Coates, who will always remember 2020 as the year her Dad died. Photo courtesy of P. Kim Bui.
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