Moving on From a Grievous 2021: What I've Learned From a No-Good, Horrible, Very Bad Year

Julia Nordgren, MD


January 10, 2022

"How could it be worse?" he said, laughing, as we reflected on the comic parade of disappointments that defined 2020.

Our elderly father had endured a miserable and isolated year in his assisted-living facility in Colorado (think: meal after meal on a tray in his apartment; freezing, outdoor holiday "celebrations"; a drumbeat of "woe is me" dialogue, his mood impervious to my brother's cheerful socially distant visits). Our teenagers gave us a smattering of topics to fret over (think: fender-benders, furtive piercings, lackluster school performance, suspiciously drained vodka bottles, Wi-Fi complaints, etc.). At the end of our many conversations, I would often say out loud, "Thank God for my brother!" who had this amazing way of treating these tough topics with the depth they deserved, and a levity that made it all bearable.

We had survived 2020, and 2021 was guaranteed to be better.

COVID would wind down, our teenagers would mature, and our dad would tap into his hibernating reservoir of joy. Our families might even ski together again! We could cook together, eat together, and drink deliciously cold IPAs as our teenagers escaped to do what they do. We would bask in the lightness and joy of a happier, easier new year.

So I wasn't prepared, in any way, for what was to come on February 1. My sister-in-law's phone call, opening with: "I have bad news for you."

My brother was in an accident. He was on a ski trip with six friends. A massive avalanche struck, and three of them were buried. My brother and two of his best friends did not survive.

And just like that, a person who I loved most in the world, who I relied on, whose presence in my life was certain and unshakable, was gone. Vanished. It felt like the huge, beautiful oak tree in my front yard was uprooted, leaving a gaping, unfillable hole in the landscape of my life. I was grief-stricken.

The year I wanted to have didn't include this. The next few months are a blur, a swirl of anguish and disbelief, of shock and sorrow. Not only for me, but for his wife, his soul mate, the woman who he created a beautiful, imperfect life with.

And his kids. His kids. The loss to them so big and unimaginable. To lose a parent at ages 12 and 16, with so much growing up left, so much nurturing and guidance still needed. To lose a parent like my brother — a ski coach, breakfast-maker, master of jokes and cuddling and music, of sound advice — it was just too much to bear. And my parents. Our parents.

Suddenly, 2021 would be worse. A lot worse.

The year became, then, about grief. About sorrow and healing and nurturing the wounded souls around me. Traveling often to Colorado to be present, to make meals and fold clothes and repeatedly walk the tiny, energetic dog. To cuddle my nieces. Try cry my eyes out. To help with homework. To sit with my father in his deep depression. To be broken and strong, all at the same time.

And a difficult truth about 2021 was never lost on me. I had a lot of company. So many of us have lost friends and family and people we can't imagine a life without. We've lost parents and marriages and careers and years of school. We've lost creative momentum. We've lost companionship, connection, concerts, and celebrations. We've all lost something deeply important to the foundation of our lives.

I wanted so much for 2021 to be better, lighter, and more joyous.

But 2021 let us down. In one way or another, we are all grieving. And as the year comes to a long-awaited close, the best I can do is take stock and find gratitude for these unwelcome lessons. To refuse to become hardened by loss, but to become softer, stronger, and more compassionate. Become more aware and tender toward the suffering around me. We are all scarred and deflated. But we have survived, and together, we can heal.

In that spirit, let me share with you some of what I learned.

Grief is exhausting. It is like a physical illness, draining and unforgiving.

Sleep and movement help. The grieving body needs lots and lots of sleep. And whenever possible, some movement. Any kind of movement is healing, particularly if it happens outdoors.

Alcohol doesn't help. The few moments of delicious relaxation are not worth the tossing and turning of disrupted sleep. Unless it is a few sweet sips of limoncello. That helps.

So many people will help. Friends, neighbors, family, and strangers, with their deep concern and kind souls, will show up and be loving in amazing and unexpected ways. They will love you with hugs and tissues and chocolate and cheese. With blueberry muffins and gorgeous, heart-wrenching handwritten notes. They will remember their own loss and hurt and remind you — you are not alone. No matter how alone you will feel. There is someone who feels it with you.

Life is still good. Magical and joyous, even. There are shining silver linings for each and every one of us. The kindness you find in your spouse. The unshakable sweetness of your dog. Your lovely, deeply amazing children who learn to see your sorrow and make it better. The friends who are now like family. The running shoes still fit, and the gorgeous trails are waiting.

So that is what I am going to work on this year. To look up, to move forward. To let all of this get easier. To let the light and love from my brother's dear friends, his wife, and his children help make this better. To find a way to carry this unwanted grief, and be a happy, joy-filled, loving and lovable human. To be a great parent and partner and doctor.

And, of course, to laugh. To find the levity we all need to make this time bearable.

So suck it, 2021. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

2022 has an excellent chance of being better.

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About Dr Julia Nordgren
Julia Nordgren, MD, has the unique distinction of being a physician, trained chef, and published author. She practices pediatrics in Palo Alto, California, where she specializes in children with high cholesterol, prediabetes, and weight issues. She writes regularly with Pegasus, the Stanford Physician Writers group, and she is the non-fiction editor of The Pegasus Review. She is an expert in the emerging field of culinary medicine, and her cookbook, The New Family Table, shows how simple, healthy eating can be delicious and full of joy.

You can find her at and on Instagram: @drjuliacooks


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