On Grief, Pandemics, and TikTok

Just before COVID struck, I started a new contract  making comedic video content with nine others in my cohort. Because we were suddenly virtual, the previous collegial environment turned fiercely competitive. 

Comedians and creatives around the globe were turning to social media to make content, make impact, and make a name. Hungry for a sweet taste of The Algorithm’s auspicious fruits. What could have been a collaborative group of creatives on set was now ten individuals making videos in our kitchens, with nothing but, “likes” and “view counts” to differentiate our perceived potential. 

Having not gone consistently viral, I was cut early from the program…the very same month I reluctantly moved back to my childhood home, where my high school sat next to a horse farm and a church (not ideal for a Jew with allergies). With my career on pause, I found myself obsessively watching my former colleagues’ pageviews grow, while my confidence shrunk. 

Making content had been my distraction from the harshness of 2020, and more critically, my own mother’s looming mortality. I didn’t know what was worse: my humiliation around not having “gone viral,” or my shame for wishing I had.  

How embarrassing to have been preoccupied by trivial social media numbers while the rest of the world was grieving.

I was no stranger to grief myself. At 19, I had lost my dad to ALS. My mother was currently battling her second diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, which had returned after I watched her suffer when I was in elementary school. Now a few years into her second diagnosis, she was receiving frequent lab tests, scans, and injections to keep her alive. 

Despite my familiarity with pain, (or perhaps, because of it) I had chosen the career path of a comedian. I had always found life’s curveballs darkly comedic, even when my own life felt closer to the horror genre. The global losses in the news made me miss my dad; he had been my biggest cheerleader. And then he died. Yikes. Dying cheerleaders. (This really is feeling more like a horror movie.) Would “the biz” return? And if so, would I still love comedy? Or perhaps my biggest fear: would comedy love me back? 

Questioning my life choices, now living with my sick mother in my hometown and performing standup for my stuffed animals into a Claire’s hairbrush, I got a call from “Walk With Sally”—the Big Sisters equivalent for children affected by cancer. (I had just launched my comedic grief podcast, Dying of Laughter. Was this a coincidence, I wondered aloud to God, Will Ferrell and/or nobody in particular?) They asked me if I would mentor 9 year-old Bianca. Both our mothers had breast cancer. I was almost 9 when my mother was first diagnosed. 

I agreed, hoping this decision would lead to a sense of purpose. I began meeting with Bianca and her mother each week. Three hearts through two screens with the one shared experience that is cancer. 

Bianca was in love with social media. TikTok was her BFF. Hell, it was her nanny. She wanted to talk about, dance to, and create videos together 24/7. Haunted by my viral shortcomings, I refused to participate in her passion. Yet when Juana, Bianca’s mother and only parent grew increasingly ill just a handful of months later, I found myself facing a brand new challenge. Juana shared how grateful she was for my presence in her daughter’s life. She sent me texts, wrote me emails, and left voicemails of heartfelt gratitude. Forever moved by Juana’s words, I found myself at a loss for my own. 

Until one day, I got another kind of call: if she were to leave this world, would I still be there for her daughter? My heart was bursting with emotions I didn’t know I had. 

How could she be dying, just months after her diagnosis? 

Bianca continued to call me throughout the holidays, begging to make videos. She was lonely, scared, and bored: the trifecta of heartache on Covid’s greedy menu. She hadn’t been in school for a year, and her mother was hospitalized. Could we at least make a TikTok? 

I’ll never forget the day after Christmas getting a FaceTime call from Bianca: 

“Hi Chelsea! It’s me! Guess what? I asked God if I could live with you!” 

“Wow…what did he say?” 

“I think he said maybe, but probably no, but that he was happy I asked!” she innocently replied. “But he was also wondering if we could make a TikTok?!” 

A newfound sadness shook me to my core. How could I, a relative stranger, be the one she would think of to live with? She stared into my eyes, and I found myself gazing back into her own, seeing the fragmented reflection of my own childhood living with sick parents. Would there be a happy ending? Was I an integral part of it? 

The weeks wore on. The begging from Bianca to create videos continued and still, I refused. The last thing I wanted was to not go viral again. See above: “cut from program.” 

I finally met with Bianca in person for the first time in 2021. The evening before, I received a text from her late at night: 

“hi chelsea. My mom is inm a better plase. I am a bit sad about this. can we make a ddance 2moro?” I fell to my knees, calling my friend Brian to tell him the news through sobs, as if speaking the facts changed them.

The next morning, my Corolla pulled into Bianca’s driveway. I ponder the heaviness of this moment, as I open the door to face a grieving child. Life will throw you curveballs, I think, but we must process and appreciate each moment that is given to us: comic, tragic and all the in betweens. And weirdly, these moments became clearer to me thanks to a fourth grader on Zoom. If you had told me I’d be sobbing to Olivia Rodrigo lyrics with a bereft child during a global pandemic, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I do believe that mentoring Bianca changed my life. 

I now realize that true fans in your life don’t care if you go viral. Funny enough, they just care about who you are. This experience has left me both broken and healed. Some people turn to comedy to escape grief… I guess you could say I found myself turning to grief to escape comedy.

To this day, I still Zoom with Bianca every week, despite her moving 90 miles away per her adoption. Every month, we get together safely in person. Juana asked me if I would continue to be there for her daughter, and the answer is: yes. 

Oh, and the day after her mom died? Bianca and I finally made a TikTok. It got 8 views, and she was obsessed. 

This essay is dedicated in loving memory to Juana G.