Pittsfield — Rebecca Soffer has volumes—literally—to share about life after loss. The co-author of “Modern Loss: Candid conversation about grief. Beginners welcome” has spent the past 15 months, since the book launched in January 2018, traveling around the country and sharing her story, one that hinges upon having lost both parents as a young adult. In the processes of navigating her own journey with loss and promoting her book, she and Gabrielle Birkner have created an integral conversation that revolves around all aspects of grief, “the good, the messy, the melancholy, and the darkly hilarious.” On Saturday, May 18, Hancock Shaker Village’s popular Food for Thought program kicks off the season with an elegant farm-to-table dinner and talk by Soffer, the roots of whose project were cultivated right here in the Berkshires.
“I’m deeply honored to be invited to speak about this book in the very place in which it was born, over an amazing meal prepared by a chef I’ve long admired, and at a venue my family and I have visited for years,” said Soffer of her upcoming talk. Soffer recalls brainstorming her book while hiking Monument Mountain and biking the Alford loop; writing her own chapters everywhere from a wooden chair in the Mason Library and the boisterous Rubi’s to a shaded spot at Lake Mansfield, “often while having a copious amount of Monterey chevre.” At the end of the day, Soffer, a former producer for the Peabody Award-winning “The Colbert Report,” is refreshingly candid and engaging—traits often missing from the oft avoided subject of loss and grief until now.
“Grief is a topic that makes most people want to run for the hills, but we’re not doing ourselves any favors by responding in that way,” said Soffer. Soffer knows this first-hand. After the death of her mother, Soffer needed to be reassured that everything joyful and meaningful in life had not ended. So she accepted an awkward invitation to a dinner party, held in a cramped Manhattan walk-up, where she met Gabrielle Birkner, who was in similar shoes: She was facing life without one of her parents. The group of women, who went on to call themselves WWDP (short for Women With Dead Parents), began meeting monthly to share their backstories. Soffer and Birkner, who recognized the therapeutic effects of these get-togethers, were inspired to cast a wider net.
Inspired by the website that the New York Times hailed as “redefining mourning,” Soffer’s book offers a fresh and irreverent approach to finding resilience through openness and pulling each other in, and serves as a companion to the website she and Birkner founded in 2013, which is aimed at changing the dialogue around this stigmatized topic. Online, Modern Loss is a community driven by candid storytelling and supported by a backbone of practical advice for navigating the churning waters of surviving a loss (I have contributed two essays here and here). In short, the site has helped to demystify a process with a long arc.
Now, in this wise and witty guide to grief, Soffer offers insights to help readers cry, laugh, identify and—above all—empathize. Brutally honest and inspiring, Modern Loss is an intimate and humorous way to confront the humanity (and mortality) we all share. “People will get support, inspiration, validation and even some unexpected laughter from sharing their stories with others who are part of this club that they never wanted to join,” said Soffer, who has had ties to the area for more than a decade. “The Berkshires has been a meaningful home to me for the last 13 years,” Soffer said in a recent statement, which means it stands to reason why she regularly includes venues in the 413 on her busy itinerary. In July, Soffer will return to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for the second annual Modern Loss retreat, co hosted by bestselling author Emily Rapp Black, for an immersive program that serves as a reminder that forming community with others who are moving through loss helps make us stronger. “I’ve had so many wonderful experiences building community [here]—not only on my own but also with my husband (the couple were married at Gedney Farm in 2009 and bought their home in Great Barrington in early 2011) and, later, our two little boys.”
Soffer, the co-founder and CEO of Modern Loss, is one of Spirituality & Health magazine’s 10 spiritual leaders for the next 20 years. A Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alumna, she has spoken nationally on the themes of loss and resilience at Chicago Ideas Week, HBO, Amazon and the Commonwealth Club, and has been featured in outlets including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and Newsweek. Her writing has appeared in a variety of media such as the New York Times, Refinery29, Elle, Marie Claire, Today.com and various book collections. She lives in New York City and the Berkshires with her husband and two young sons.
The Food for Thought dinner will be prepared by chef Brian Alberg using locally sourced ingredients. Participants will enjoy lively, frank discussions with Soffer, who will speak about the making of Modern Loss and sign copies of the book. Tickets are $100 ($90 members). Advance registration is required. Tickets include a three-course dinner, wine, dessert, and a copy of Soffer’s book. For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar or call Hancock Shaker Village at (413) 443-0188.