Remembering the People We've Lost in 2020
With the coronavirus pandemic, continuing social unrest and a shaky economy impacting the United States in ways that we’ve never seen before, 2020 has been a tough year for everyone. We’ve dealt with cataclysmic shifts to our physical, mental and emotional health, and we’ve done our best to weather the changes to everyday life that now compose our "new normal."
Part of that new normal is mourning and learning to live different lives in the absence of hundreds of thousands of people whom COVID-19 has taken from us — and to live without some of the most iconic world-changers in entertainment and politics. As we sit on the precipice of a new year, it’s important to memorialize and honor those we’ve lost but will never, ever forget.
Sports legends are powerful figures, inspiring us with their tenacity, their dedication and their seemingly otherworldly skills on the court and field. Kobe Bryant was no different. Spending his entire decades-spanning career with the Los Angeles Lakers, this NBA All-Star and MVP was consistently hailed as one of the world’s greatest basketball players.
Sadly, Bryant’s life was cut short in one of early 2020’s most shocking and tragic events. On January 26, the NBA superstar, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people lost their lives in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, California, while on the way to a game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy. The news devastated not just sports fans but also communities around the world who felt the impact of Bryant’s cultural contributions and extensive philanthropic efforts.
Eddie Van Halen
As the main songwriter and guitarist for his namesake band Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen was a music legend in his own right who was also known as one of the best guitar players in the world. Inspiring innovation in guitar-playing techniques and in rock ‘n’ roll itself, the fretboard virtuoso’s career in music crossed five decades, earning him and Van Halen countless accolades and awards nominations.
On October 6, Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, made the difficult announcement that the musician had passed away after battling throat and lung cancer for several years. Tributes began rolling in from fans and music artists around the world, celebrating the guitarist’s accomplishments and the legacy he built. "Eddie Van Halen is one of the most influential guitarists in rock history," noted Esquire editor-at-large Dave Holmes, "the picture of hard work and virtuosity, the guy who never made himself the center of attention but whose face you couldn’t forget, the performer who put a gallon of sweat into each gig, yet somehow made it look easy."
As far as iconic TV faces go, Regis Philbin was one of the most recognizable — and the most beloved. Working as everything from a singer and actor to a talk show host, TV presenter and game show host, Philbin got his start in the early 1960s as a guest host on The Tonight Show and went on to appear in some of the most well-known programs to ever grace the small screen.
On July 24, just a month shy of his 89th birthday, the iconic star of The Morning Show, Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire passed away following a heart attack due to cardiac issues he’d grappled with for the latter half of his life. Philbin’s former co-hosts summed up his contributions beautifully: "There will never be another," said longtime TV personality and friend Kathie Lee Gifford. "He was the ultimate class act," noted Kelly Ripa. "We were beyond lucky to have him as a mentor in our careers and aspire every day to fill his shoes."
Little Richard is a name that will forever hold a prominent place in music history, thanks in large part to his "thunderous piano and electrifying stage presence" and to his influential contributions that solidified his standing as one of the founders of modern rock ‘n’ roll. Never one to shy away from theatrics even while seated at a piano, his songs "Tutti Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Long Tall Sally" helped to set the stage for what the genre would become — and the way in which performance itself could become an artform.
After enjoying a spectacular career spanning more than six decades, Little Richard’s health began to decline in the mid 2010s. The famed musician passed away in May of 2020 at the age of 87, just a few months after he received a bone cancer diagnosis — but he’s one trailblazer who will undoubtedly never be forgotten.
Naya Rivera was best known for her role as Santana Lopez on the Fox musical-comedy show Glee, which quickly won critical acclaim after its debut in 2009. The actress went missing in the water while on a boating trip with her young son, Josey, and after days of searching her body was recovered following the disappearance.
Rivera's passing was devastating news to her family, as well as to the Glee cast and diehard fans of the show. Throughout her life, she focused extensively on championing rights for undocumented immigrants, unhoused people, children and the LGBTQ+ community, and Rivera leaves behind an almost unmatched philanthropic legacy. To honor her memory, many of her Glee castmates are continuing her charitable campaigns.
Congressman John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis was a longtime voice and a prominent leader in the fight for racial equality in the United States. Before serving in the House of Representatives for Georgia's fifth congressional district from 1987 up until his death, this civil rights hero and activist challenged segregation as a freedom rider and became a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all the while making radical calls for justice.
Throughout his life, Lewis was a constant advocate of getting into "good trouble" — calling out things that aren’t right, fair or just, even if it means facing some negative repercussions. And that call to action is just one important element of the enduring legacy he leaves in the wake of his death. In 2019, Lewis announced he had stage IV pancreatic cancer but was determined to fight, just like he had done all his life. After six months of battling the disease, he passed away at the age of 80 on July 17, 2020.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Nearly every aspect of our everyday lives has been touched in some way by Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Many of us wouldn’t be able to live the lives we do if it weren’t for the changes the country made stemming from Justice Ginsburg’s push to eliminate the many forms of discrimination that had been codified in American law. A big element of her legacy, according to Kathryn Stanchi, a law professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, is "the ability to perform your gender as you wish" which she accomplished by advocating for equality in countless court cases in her early legal career.
During the later years of her nearly three-decade tenure as an Associate Justice, Ginsburg survived numerous bouts of cancer and other health issues. Her pancreatic cancer returned, causing complications that ultimately took her life in September of 2020. Thousands of mourners came to the Supreme Court building, and later the U.S. Capitol, to pay their respects — but millions of Americans owe many of their freedoms to this peerless world changer.
When we think of game shows, we think of Jeopardy — and when we think of Jeopardy, we’re always going to think of Alex Trebek, the longtime face of the classic trivia show who took over hosting duties in 1984. But aside from introducing curious categories and Daily Doubles every weeknight, Trebek enjoyed a long career as a seasoned television host on other programs like The Wizard of Odds, Double Dare, High Rollers and To Tell the Truth.
In 2019, Trebek revealed that he’d been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer but was determined to keep hosting Jeopardy for as long as he was able. The seven-time winner of the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host died from the disease in November of 2020 at the age of 80, a little over 18 months after his diagnosis.
From taking on real-life heroes like Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get On Up) to his iconic performance of T'Challa in Marvel’s acclaimed Black Panther — a role he had brought to life several times in other Marvel Cinematic Universe films — Chadwick Boseman grew to become unforgettable and unstoppable on the big screen. Initially working as a drama teacher, Boseman also spent years acting in stage productions before taking TV and the big screen by storm in the early 2000s.
Unbeknownst to most, Boseman had privately been battling colon cancer since his initial diagnosis in 2016. Only the actor’s close family and friends knew about the illness that eventually took his life in 2020, leaving many fans and fellow actors shocked and devastated in the wake of his passing. The beloved actor was a force on screen, of course, but he leaves behind a legacy of much more than his prolific performances. Boseman became a real-life superhero, particularly for the Black community, while personifying the grace, humility, perseverance and passion we all need more of.
As the founder of Uptown Records, music executive and producer Andre Harrell devoted a large part of his time in the industry to discovering and developing the careers of some of the best-known hip-hop and R&B artists around — greats like Sean "Diddy" Combs and Mary J. Blige. He later served as CEO of Motown Records and as the Vice Chairman of Revolt, Diddy's multi-platform music network.
Harrell passed away in May 2020 at the age of 59 after dealing with heart problems in the days leading up to his death. Following his passing, artists around the country came together to celebrate the producer’s impact on their careers. "Without him there would be no Jodeci, Heavy D, Diddy, Mary J Blige, Father MC and many more. Thank you is not enough. Rest," tweeted Andrez Harriott, an R&B artist who worked extensively with Harrell.
Perhaps most famous for being the first actor to bring everyone’s favorite British Secret Service agent to life on the silver screen, Sean Connery enjoyed a long and celebrated career thanks to his award-winning acting chops and the larger-than-life, hypermasculine personality that he carried off the set and into the real world. Often working with famed directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Lumet, Connery also showcased his talents and charisma so prominently that he was eventually named the "Greatest Living Scot" by his home country’s The Sunday Herald.
At times controversial, the legendary actor led a rich life on and off the screen and enjoyed a more relaxed pace after decades in the spotlight. In his later years, Connery began experiencing poor health, living with dementia for some time and growing older out of the public eye. The actor passed away in his sleep due to pneumonia and heart failure at his home in the Bahamas in October of 2020.
Natalie Desselle-Reid acted in a variety of well-known projects in her career, including films like B.A.P.S. and Cinderella and the television series Eve. The actress, who was famous for her comedic chops and personality, passed away due to colon cancer in December 2020 at the age of 53.
Desselle-Reid's B.A.P.S. co-star Halle Berry paid a beautiful tribute to her on Instagram, saying, "Natalie taught us love, joy and humor through her characters — she could never dim her light, and it was infectious… Natalie represented actual Black women, not what Black women are perceived to be… Her light continues to shine through the people who grew up watching her, the people who knew her best, and those of us who loved her."
Tommy “Tiny” Lister
Actor Tommy "Tiny" Lister, best known for his role playing neighborhood fixture Deebo in the Friday film series and his work as a professional wrestler, tested positive for COVID-19 in August of 2020. He recovered from the virus quickly, however, and was reportedly using his time spent in quarantine to get in better shape, according to his manager, Cindy Cowan.
But Lister began showing symptoms of COVID-19 again in early December, shortly after noting in an interview that he was looking forward to receiving the vaccine for the virus. Just a week later, he passed away in his home at the age of 62 after experiencing difficulty breathing. "[Lister] was a gentle giant and one-of-a-kind," Cowan told People. "He was an amazing man [who] will definitely be missed."
Loved Ones Who’ve Succumbed to COVID-19
2020 has been a year marked by loss. Perhaps nowhere else has this impacted us more than in the toll that the novel coronavirus has taken on everyday people around the world. We’ve been forced to say unexpected goodbyes to friends, family and favorite people, and COVID-19 has touched — and forever altered — each and every one of our lives in a tangible way. Nearly a year into the pandemic, the United States has lost more than 330,000 people, from Holocaust survivors and frontline healthcare workers to teachers and war veterans — people from all walks whose futures were indelibly changed by the coronavirus.
But we remember them most for changing our lives, too, through their service, their kindness, their presence and their love. And we honor them for the impact they’ve had in making all of our small worlds better places to be. 2020 hasn’t been an easy year. It hasn’t been a fun year. But it’s been a year of realizing that our relationships with others are what truly make our lives richer, that love and friendship and care are what truly deserve nurturing. Amid the devastation, we memorialize the people and relationships we’ve lost. We celebrate them. We thank them. And we tend the fires of their memories, keeping them glowing in our hearts as we do everything in our power to find strength to turn the tides of loss.