After the death of her mother, Rebecca Soffer really 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 – “the good, the messy, the melancholy, and the darkly hilarious,” according to the duo, who went on to found Modern Loss. Their online publication, (for which I wrote an essay here) launched in November 2013 and hailed by the New York Times as “redefining mourning,” is community-driven by candid storytelling and supported by a backbone of practical advice for navigating the churning waters of surviving a loss. In short, the site has helped to demystify a process with a long arc.
Now the co-founders of Modern Loss have taken the plunge and transitioned from an online community to a printed book, one that is wise and funny and seeks to change the dialogue around the messy experience of grief. Soffer and Birkner, along with 40 guest contributors including Berkshire County residents Joey Chernila and Michael Flamini, reveal their own stories on a wide range of topics ranging from triggers and secrets to sex and inheritance. The stories are accompanied by beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and witty “how to” cartoons by Peter Arkle that provide both a unique perspective on loss as well as a life-affirming message. “Peter brought the storylines to life in a way that was so unexpected,” said Soffer. “He really got it.”
“We have found a way to be matter-of-fact about loss,” said Soffer, a part-time resident of Great Barrington. And the result is refreshing. As for the real-time conversations surrounding grief and loss, are they getting any easier? They are getting more practical, funny and candid. And the best part about this volume is the informal promise that comes with reading it: “The next time you meet someone living with loss, you’ll pause and figure out a way to pull them in and connect with them,” according to Soffer and Birkner. “There’s always a way.” This fact is becoming clear to Soffer and Birkner, who are currently on the road promoting their new book. In a recent phone interview, Soffer spoke candidly about the people she is meeting at book events. “I am just now realizing the impact ‘Modern Loss’ is having at these book events,” she said almost incredulously. And then she told me about the seven women who trekked to Manhattan’s Upper West Side from Brooklyn on a Tuesday in February because they had all lost their mothers. Then there was the father-daughter pair who showed up, whose wife/mother had died in November, and they had been fighting over their one copy of the book. And these are just nine individuals who are reading the stories and liking them.
HVS: I was struck by the book’s epigraph: “The opposite of war isn’t peace . . . it’s creation.” Can you tell me a little bit about its significance?
RS: I’m a big musical theater nerd. So, in my case, it’s completely appropriate. Jonathan Larson (writer of the groundbreaking musical “Rent“) died right before the show went into previews, became kind of a cult figure in theater and the world of art. I just love this line so much. It connects with the experience of loss so strongly for so many of us. In my case, it felt like I didn’t want to be at peace with everything that went down in my life. More than that, I wanted to live a really amazing life, not just in spite of but, because of the losses I’ve had. For me, part of that meant creating something – leaving something behind that leaves some sort of a mark to help people in positive ways. It was my way of making lemonade out of it – taking the adversity I’d been handed and turning it into something.
HVS: History points to the fact that we are all going to die; why then, in your opinion, is the subject of loss so taboo?
RS: People in Western culture don’t like to be reminded that their time walking above earth is finite. Furthermore, we don’t want to think about – or imagine what it would feel like – to live above ground without someone who we cared so deeply for. Why would we? It’s so painful. So we just don’t talk about it. We don’t know how to. We haven’t been given as many primers as other cultures have provided that aren’t platitude- or religion-oriented so we find ourselves outside the nucleus of communities we’d otherwise have centered ourselves around in the past. The isolation, what it would feel like [to experience loss] – we shy away from it.
HVS: You talk about notable shifts in the social mores surrounding death and grieving; how do you see ‘Modern Loss’ – both your online community and your book – contributing to this movement?
RS: The Modern Loss community has been a breath of fresh air for those looking for permission to let it all hang out. Everyone lives with loss differently. We don’t think it’s disrespectful to make jokes. We encourage irreverence. There is no need to be holy about the way you live [with loss], and it’s important to still feel like a human being [Thankfully] there has been a greater opening in this conversation over the last couple years. There have always been wonderful publications and resources, but none that were speaking to us. We were looking for really candid, really casual [conversations] that made us feel like we were still young and had a lot to live for – not cheesy but hopeful to describe the great adventure of living with loss because, in that mess, there is a lot of lightness. [First the website and now the book have given contributors] control to create their own narrative by sharing their stories, angles and point of view without feeling embarrassed.
HVS: How has being immersed in Modern Loss been cathartic for you in your own journey?
RS: Some people ask me: “How do you do that, work with these stories all the time? Isn’t it depressing?” Not really. Yes, the impetus of the story is pretty sad. But beyond that, they are not death stories. They are life stories, more specifically what happened to the person left behind. Some of them hinge on finance, history, secrets or sex. The common denominator is that they all stem from loss: beyond that, everything goes. It has been a genuinely interesting thing to work with. And it’s been fun to see a community grow. We thought there was a hunger for something like this: We threw it against the wall and here were are –a place to share, to vent, to talk, to console and to confirm. It’s been amazing! Coming from a background in journalism and comedy … I look for levity in these tough situations. If you can’t find it, you’re in for a long, unenjoyable ride.
HVS: Grief and isolation are often inextricably linked. What’s your most practical advice for individuals living with loss?
RS: Not everyone is going to be on this journey with you. That’s OK. One bit of practical advice: You do have to be your own advocate. The more you can really sit and think about what you need, the more likely you are to ask. If someone says “No!” or they are not into helping, that’s OK. And, as you keep living with your loss, you’ll know what you need. Go to different people to fulfill different needs; your really weirdly organized friend can help you clean and sort through unneeded items, but then look to someone else to take you out for a drink and make you forget. Look, I think it would be really awesome if people could know what others need, but the reality is we all have our own busy lives, problems and stresses. That said, the burden usually falls on us to communicate what our needs are. And in the immediacy of a loved one’s death, you can’t possibly know what you need, so be kind to yourself and patient.