It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of loss we’ve seen in a year when the worst pandemic in a century gripped the globe. The numbers are staggering — there have been more than 330,000 deaths in the United States alone due to covid-19, 1.7 million worldwide, and more every day.
Sometimes, the numbers can’t contextualize the losses close to our hearts. We lost famous icons, family members and friends, as we do in any other year. But for many, proper mourning hasn’t been an option; funerals have been postponed, closure delayed.
Some of these losses reverberated across the world. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Sept. 18 at 87, for example, a collective mourning set in. Even as the pandemic raged, people gathered at the Supreme Court in D.C. to pay their respects to a woman who spent her career championing gender equality. For women, especially, the loss of such a feminist icon felt personal — many turned to their female friends to grieve someone who’d advanced rights that directly impacted their lives.
While Ginsburg may have been arguably one of the most well-known women we lost this year, there were countless others. Katherine Johnson, a “hidden figure” in spaceflight, died Feb. 24 at 101. She developed equations that ultimately helped the NACA and its successor, NASA, send astronauts to the moon, and was later recognized as a pioneer for African Americans and women in the field.
We lost fashion mogul Barbara “B.” Smith at age 70, who went from one of fashion’s top models in the 1970s to a lifestyle maven; Betty Williams, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland died at 76; and Helen Reddy, whose 1970s song “I Am Woman” became a galvanizing anthem in the women’s movement, died at 78.
Cecilia Chiang, a San Francisco restaurateur who brought authentic Chinese cooking to an American contingent, died Oct. 28 at 100. Lucille Bridges, who walked alongside her daughter Ruby as she became one of the first Black students to integrate a White school in the South in 1960, died Nov. 10 at 86. Jan Morris, an author and prolific travel writer who was one of the world’s most well-known transgender figures, died Nov. 20 at 94.
In times of great loss — and isolation — sometimes all we have are words to commemorate the incredible lives these women lived. Read about more notable women we lost here. Our readers also shared tributes to women they lost in 2020 — whether it was a dear friend or a beloved grandmother. Take a moment to read them below.
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“Padma Sharma, my mom, was born June 11, 1940, in Varanasi, India. She died May 31, 2020, in Fremont, Calif. It’s been six months since she breathed her last [breath] in my home, and I’m still hovering in her room, trying to hang on to her calm, gentle, loving, patient and always-giving presence.
My mom was the quintessential Indian mom. Beautiful, gentle and hard-working. Children and family always came first. She thought nothing of ‘pausing’ her life in India and made the long flight to America to help support me when I had my second child in 1996.
The diminutive, shy, 4-foot-11 lady, raised in a typical male-dominated Indian society, traveled uncomplainingly for the 24-hour plane journeys “over the seven seas” for 15 years all by herself — and helped raise four grandkids, all boys, every Indian summer — in Toronto, Fremont and Chicago.
Everybody loved her dearly — grandkids, relatives, our friends, relatives’ friends’ friends. In a world where humans love to brag and talk about themselves, Mom was the accepting, patient listener with a big, open heart.
She was cremated in Fremont, but when this pandemic is done, we will take her ashes to Benares, to the flowing Ganga, to the place of her birth. There are no tombstones to record these dates and feelings in Hindu culture, the cycle of birth and death goes on … but in her absence, I feel her presence even more.”
— Jaya Murthy, 55, Fremont, Calif.
“She was known by a dozen different nicknames among her six children, 15 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and the many spouses and significant others. To me, she was Bub — my sweet, perfect little grandma. She was the best of us, the center of our universe.
Her cinnamon rolls were magic. She gardened barehanded. She loved Chanel perfume and fancy moisturizers. She had the extra sports package on television so she could watch all the football games, which she bet on every week of the season. On special occasions, she ordered a gin martini on the rocks, with a twist. You would never catch her without a perfect, seasonally appropriate manicure. Her generosity was boundless. While a stroke took away her ability to speak before she passed, she could still squeeze my hand. That last little squeeze packed a thousand words between us, for which I’m eternally grateful. To love and be loved by her will be the single greatest gift of my life.”
— Kendra Moore, 31, Reno, Nev.
“Bintou Ojomo was an international force with a megawatt smile and enough love for all of us. She had so many friends, but we all felt like her best friend. She would call, text, FaceTime, drop everything for her friends. She gave me courage and faith. Bintou showed up when I lost my way. Her last weekend, she managed to call me (and all of us). She was so sick but she pushed through to share a smile. I’d decided it was going to be my last day, but she called and caught me. That Monday she was gone.
For saving my life, for teaching me friendship, for every dimpled smile — thank you and I love you. Forever your girl.”
— Courtney Fields, 31, New York City
“I lost my mother-in-law, Kathleen Contillo, to her long struggle with cancer on the same day that Americans began to die of covid-19 She was a political wife, beautiful, well-dressed, very funny and drove a Jaguar. She was adored by her six children.
We were very different, and I’m sure she wished her son had married someone else. I was stung when she sent an article to the local paper for their society column that said, ‘Robert Contillo marries nurse.’ When my children were born, she was still young and not much interested in being a grandmother; she didn’t babysit often and sometimes canceled at the last minute when she said she would. I didn’t know much about her day-to-day life except that it was very different from my own mother’s, who worked long hours and often came home after we were in bed.
But when she became sick, she accepted it with grace, and I began to see a different side to her. I began to meet weekly with the hospice nurse and became more involved with her care. Two days before she died, she pulled my face close to hers and said, ‘I’m sorry Chris.’ I still miss her.”
— Christine Contillo, 69, New Jersey
“This year, my dear friend Sandy passed away from cancer. I met Sandy when I was 23. We had both been hired to work the summer of 1986 at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. Somehow through all these years, we managed to remain in each other’s lives.
Sandy was smart. She had a very sharp tongue and often sounded like she was insulting people. Three different people who spoke at her memorial, which was just a small gathering at a dog park, said they met Sandy when she insulted their dog for their size (too small), lack of personality or too much personality.
But the thing I learned about her sharp tongue was that it protected a kind, sensitive heart. And as much as she tried to hide that heart, I could see it. I saw it in the way she was always entertaining anyone that came through her front door. In the good times, her backyard was the happy hour spot for her neighbors at the end of the day. Even on her deathbed she was concerned about her guests’ comfort. I will miss my friend who has been by my side for so long I didn’t notice. It never occurred to me we would part. I wish we had more time. And I wonder where she is.”
— Austin Gray, 57, Los Angeles
“I lost my godmother, my dear Aunty Sheila, almost one week after my birthday in October. While her death will be noted as cancer, covid-19 interrupted her cancer treatment. She was one of my favorite people, and we had planned to visit her in August (she lived in England while we’re in the United States). Because of covid-19, she was alone in hospice during her final hours. It’s heartbreaking. But while she is gone, she is not forgotten. I’ll always hold close who she was to me. A loving and kind woman with a sense of humor, curiosity about the world, ability to listen without judgment, a sense of adventure, and a big heart. She is how I want to be as I continue to age.”
— Christina Barry-Simmons, 43, Boise, Idaho