The messy truth about how grief touches every part of one’s life isn’t a traditional topic for the dinner table or a blog. It can make Americans in particular very uncomfortable, so we avoid it. Unfortunately, this avoidance leaves us ill-equipped to handle the death of a loved one, despite the fact that we will all face that loss in the fullness of time.
For Rebecca Soffer, writer, producer, community organizer, and CEO of the Modern Loss community, the fullness of time came all too soon. Soffer lost both of her parents in the space of five years and found herself orphaned in her mid-30s. Since that time, she has made it her life’s work to provide space to speak candidly about the complexity of grief and human relationships, first, with Gabrielle Birkner, the Modern Loss website and book. Now, Soffer is continuing that work with The Modern Loss Handbook, a guide for staying connected to yourself, “your person,” and the world after the worst happens.
Modern Loss began as a community website in 2013. Can you talk about how you and your collaborator, Gabrielle Birkner, came up with the idea for the site and, eventually, for the book that followed?
Gabi and I met several months after my mom was killed in a car accident in 2006, at an informal dinner we’d both been invited to. The group of women who were at the dinner had all lost a parent and we bonded very quickly. To be in a setting where you don’t have to explain all your mishegas every single time you open your mouth is such a relief. A few years later, in 2010, my dad died of a heart attack on a cruise.
In the interim, I had started thinking about how nice it would be to have a community that wasn’t anchored in religion or psychology. A space that was centered around human storytelling, where anything goes as long as you’re not hurting yourself or anybody else and done in a way that was really casual. Sometimes you have an idea and it just doesn’t go away for years—that’s what was happening. So, in 2013 I approached Gabi, who is an excellent journalist and editor, and said, “We’ve really got to do this thing.”
After we launched the site in November 2013 it took off right away. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that people were relating to the tone because I felt so strongly that there was a need for this space. However, I was shocked by the speed with which it took off.
What drew you to the idea of writing your initial book? How does The Modern Loss Handbook expand on the ideas explored therein?
The internet is terrific, in that it really allows for very accessible storytelling. But a book is different. It’s tactile and weighty in your hands; it feels good to have something meaningful and comforting you can hold. Our first book, Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome came out of that wish to create something physical, and working on it really allowed us to pull in a lot of different contributors for conversations around these themes. We were able to write extensively ourselves and to experiment with art and illustration. Doing that was a huge challenge and, ultimately, an amazing experience.
This one is called The Modern Loss Handbook because it’s really meant to be more of a guide. It contains all the things that I have learned from my 15 years of living with very personal, profound loss as a person who was 30 years old when faced with that loss—and trying to figure out how to live a life. The book brings together all the things my community has taught me over the course of the last nine years, because they are so much wiser collectively than I am individually. It includes so many modalities that I have learned from different experts, therapists, and practitioners. There is no one magic pill or single thing that helps everybody; there’s not going to be one thing that helps you all the time. However, there are a lot of things you can try that can help incrementally at different times. Learning these possibilities is how you really build your toolkit so that you have something in your back pocket before the time of need when you get hit with a trigger. That’s what I wanted to share with people.
In the book, you encourage readers to be in both the happy memories and the more complicated moments they may have shared with their person. Why was it important for you to emphasize both?
It’s important to recognize that not every situation can be summed up by saying, “Oh, we had a great relationship and everything had closure.” Human dynamics are very complex. That’s why I make a case for remembering the tough stuff. When you remember it, maybe it can teach you some lessons about how you might like to live your own life. I certainly have takeaways from my own experience of losing my parents. Maybe it’s something that you realize you’re still struggling with, but you didn’t realize you were having a hard time until being asked a blunt question. At that point, you might like to speak with a therapist about it. If you work with the right therapist, and have the right conversations, and join peer to peer groups with people who really understand and are willing to listen to you, then you can really work through those tough things. It’s never going to be resolved with your person, because they’re dead. But you can resolve it with yourself to the best of your abilities by giving yourself the chance to examine it and sit with it. You deserve to live with as little weighing on you as possible.
How did you go about the seemingly impossible task of crafting a handbook for living with grief?
I included a lot more information than I intended to, but I just couldn’t stop writing. There are so many things that work together to help somebody to build resilience when they’re moving through grief, whether that’s community support, individualized support, or personal reflection. In the end, this book is something that you really can use over the course of years. You don’t have to fill it all out in one sitting; it should be something that’s really part of your experience.
I focused on three goals: staying connected to yourself, staying connected to your person, and staying connected to the world around you. These are three very, very important things, and the book has many different approaches to them. For example, when talking about staying connected to your person, I discuss the meaning and importance of ritual, both traditional rituals like sitting shiva as well as maybe creating a bespoke holiday that celebrates something that person stood for. There are also strategies for moving through those trigger days like anniversaries and meaningful milestones that can be so difficult.
In the section about staying connected to yourself I describe different types of traditional therapies, along with DIY therapies, creative therapies like music therapy, and even cathartic destruction, writing, and all the rest. The good news is, I tested them all. I went through the whole thing after I wrote it, and it was still germane to me 15 years after I lost my parents. Staying connected to the world around you is really vital because if you don’t stay connected to the world you feel like you’re losing yourself. You’re still in this world. That’s the section where I go very deep into the importance of navigating your social dynamics and friendships, because those are definitely affected when we’re dealing with loss.
What’s the role of humor in your work and in how you live with grief?
Humor is so important to me. You don’t always have the choice, but sometimes you get to ask, “Am I gonna laugh about this? Or am I gonna lose it?” Of course, sometimes it’s both, but you definitely deserve to laugh if you want to and if it feels good. That what comedy is—laughing at the ridiculous aspects of life. Why wouldn’t grief be included in that? It’s part of life. It’s messy. You can’t just sit and rend your clothes for however long you’re going to be on Earth. You deserve to remind yourself that you’re human, that you can laugh and feel some levity.
What impact has your Judaism had on your writing and community building efforts?
I’m very culturally Jewish, and I’m very active in the Jewish community, both professionally and personally. My parents always tried to stress the importance of tikkun olam in different ways, and for my mom it was definitely through a feminist lens. She always took me to NARAL meetings, marches, and the League of Women Voters’ events. She always tried to express the urgency of alleviating the struggles of other women, even in some tiny way, even if the issue didn’t impact me directly. This work is grounded in my upbringing. If I can contribute to making somebody feel even a little bit less lonely, within what is an inherently lonely experience, that’s my tikkun olam.
Rebecca Soffer’s new book is called The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, published by Running Press. For more information about Soffer’s work, visit www.modernloss.com.