Tragedy was around long before the Greeks and death and dying is not exactly new. But as grief and loss go, 2015 was a doozy of a year. Attacks in Paris, Beirut, northern Nigeria, and San Bernadino, to name but a few. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing unimaginable atrocities, with nowhere to go. Mass shootings in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina: on average, more than one per day in the US in 2015. This was a year in which the deaths of innocents were often met with impunity, and demagogues led in the polls.
Over the last few years, we've learned to sit with suffering, to resist the impulse to avert our gaze or change the subject. In 2015, there was a lot to witness.
But we've also gotten rather good at sitting with opposites, and learned that light and dark can, and indeed always do, coexist.
So we wanted to take a moment to recognize the other side of the story. In 2015, we saw grief and death and dying come out of the closet as never before, and saw loss inspire acts of remarkable generosity, empathy, and unity.
"The plaintive voices of the dead call the living to action," writes NYT columnist Charles Blow. It was a year in which collective grief poured out on the streets. The attacks in Paris were met with candlelight memorials and peace vigils around the world, including a gathering of thousands in the very same neighborhood where several of the attackers lived. The Black Lives Matter movement forced presidential candidates to reckon on a public stage with America's legacy of racism, and in July, the Confederate flag flew for the last time at the South Carolina statehouse. At the funeral of state Senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people murdered at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, the President of the United States was joined by thousands of voices in singing "Amazing Grace".
It's a year that proved that, for all our hand-wringing about "death taboos," this is something that people really do want to talk about; we simply need better language and better spaces in which to do so. A TED Talk by Dinner Party friend/inspiration/all-around-badass BJ Miller, head of Zen Hospice Project, was viewed more than 2.5M times. In it, BJ talks about the difference between "necessary suffering"-- our common currency as human beings, "the very thing that unites caregiver and care receiver" -- and "suffering we can change," by designing better systems for end-of-life care. Artist and cancer survivor Emily McDowell's Empathy Cards went viral, giving platitude-laden Hallmark cards the boot, and supplying us with a thing to say on all the occasions when we don't know what to say. 2015 saw the death of "death panels": Starting January 1, Medicare will reimburse doctors and nurse practitioners for talking with patients about their end-of-life wishes.
For us, 2015 was a game-changer. Two years ago, we set out on what some deemed a rather quixotic journey: to get 20- and 30-somethings to talk openly about loss and life after around potluck dinner tables, and to make it something people weren't embarrassed to share with their friends. In the last year, our tables grew 400%, to more than 100 worldwide, powered by 140+ hosts and a thousand Dinner Partiers. We were named the #1 "Thing That Can Really Help You While You're Grieving" on a BuzzFeed list, and covered on CNN, CBS LA, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, O Magazine, The New York Times, and more.
In a remarkable interview with Vice President Joe Biden in September, The Late Show's Stephen Colbert used his second question to say, "I was hoping you could tell us a story about your son." The Vice President spoke of his son's life, and the moment Beau, battling end-stage cancer, said to him, "Promise me you’re going to be alright." The two went on to talk about faith, and parenting, and the experience of being both caregiver and receiver, and the act of getting up. "The people I find who I'm most drawn to are people who have been hurt," said Biden.
In 2016, we promise to keep looking for the light.