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'Loss is the great leveler'

There is no guidebook for grief, say editors of new compilation, ‘Modern Loss’

Both orphaned too early, Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer have moved their own experiences — and a community of grievers — from the web onto the page

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A baby Gabrielle Birkner with her late father Larry Birkner c. 1980 (Courtesy)
A baby Gabrielle Birkner with her late father Larry Birkner c. 1980 (Courtesy)

More than a decade ago, Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer became members of the same club — one neither of them ever wanted to be part of. As young women, they both suffered the sudden loss of both of their parents. Birkner’s father and stepmother were murdered in a home invasion; Soffer’s mother died in a car accident, and then four years later her father died of heart failure while on a Caribbean cruise.

One evening in 2007, Birkner and Soffer met at a Manhattan dinner party in a small, sweltering apartment where baked ziti was eaten off plates balanced on laps. The guests were all women in their 20s and early 30s facing life with at least one deceased parent. The cluster became a support group of sorts, its members deciding to call it WWDP (Women with Dead Parents).

The sharing at WWDP gatherings was unlike anything Birkner and Soffer had encountered in other support groups they had tried. The conversation was bolder, messier, and darkly humorous. There were no rights or wrongs when it came to grieving. It was a more open, modern approach to dealing with loss.

Gabrielle Birkner (left) and Rebecca Soffer at ‘Modern Loss’ storytelling event at Book Soup in Los Angeles, February 1, 2018. (Courtesy)

Birkner and Soffer became fast and good friends and decided to create a new joint venture using their backgrounds in media: Birkner is a journalist who has worked at New York and Jewish publications, and Soffer was a producer at The Colbert Report. Together they founded Modern Loss, an online publication providing resources for navigating loss and a space for candid storytelling about it.

The website, launched in late 2013, was aimed primarily — but not exclusively — at younger adults. The “modern” in Modern Loss denoted an attitude, not an age group. (After all, anyone can benefit from the slightly wacky, yet highly practical advice to avoid scattering a loved one’s ashes into the wind so they won’t whip back and stick to your lip gloss.)

Recently, the two women published a book version of Modern Loss. This new format offers 44 essays digging deeper into the themes of the several hundred pieces that have appeared on the website.

“It showcases in one volume the diversity of loss people have experienced — who, how long ago, how the person died — and at the same time highlights the common themes that we saw bubbling up to the surface,” Birkner said.

Modern Loss by Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer (Harper Wave)

The book, illustrated by Peter Arkle, includes contributions specially commissioned from well-known individuals. Readers will likely recognize contributors like CNN’s Brian Stelter, who writes about hoarding and rereading emails from his late New York Times colleague, mentor and father figure David Carr. Journalist and media entrepreneur Rachel Sklar shares about going off to college immediately after her brother’s suicide. Author David Sax reflects on the complexities of naming a new baby for a beloved dead relative.

Among the other recognizable names are Emily Rapp Black, author of “The Still Point of the Turning World,” about the aftermath of her infant son’s Tay-Sachs diagnosis, and Lucy Kalanithi, whose late husband Paul Kalanithi wrote his Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” in the process of dying of cancer while training in neurosurgery at Stanford.

“It’s true there are some big names in the book, but we also have a lot of fresh voices, people with amazing stories who have never been published before,” Birkner said.

“Loss is the great leveler,” Soffer added.

Gabrielle Birkner with her late father Larry and late stepmother Ruth c. 2000 (Courtesy)

Jacqueline Murekatete is a contributor likely unfamiliar to readers. In her “Where The Heart No Longer Is” essay, she recounts the massacre of her entire family during the Rwandan genocide. The sole survivor, she returned many years later to her home village to discover she felt absolutely no connection to it anymore.

Birkner, 38, invited Murekatete to write a piece for the book after covering her work as a human rights activist, and her cooperation on genocide education projects with Holocaust survivors.

The book deals with the long arc of grief and loss, acknowledging that things like ugly crying, triggers and Freudenschade (the opposite of Schadenfreude, and the sting you feel when you see a stranger having brunch with her mother, when yours is dead) don’t go away after the first year — if ever.

“Clients ask me how long their grief will last. The answer is that closure is a myth. Grief comes in waves. Grief is not a linear process and it doesn’t end. What I love about ‘Modern Loss’ is that it normalizes these things,” said Abby Spilka, a certified thanatologist who has a masters degree in applied psychology and works with the bereaved in private practice in New York.

Rebecca Soffer with her late mother Shelby in 2005. (Courtesy)

Spilka is a fan of the Modern Loss website and rushed to get the book as soon as it was published. She wishes something like this had been around when her mother died in 1988. Spilka left UCLA in her senior year to return home to care for her sick mother. When she returned to school after her mother’s passing, her classmates, roommates and friends had already graduated and moved on.

“I returned to school alone and without a support system. I didn’t have those echoing voices of the Modern Loss community reassuring me that I was not going crazy,” Spilka said.

Birkner and Soffer said they were grateful for the technological advances that enabled them to launch and build Modern Loss.

However, it can be a double-edged sword. Thanks to social media, people are more open to sharing everything about their lives. It allows them to put their grief out in front of tens, hundreds, and even thousands of individuals and receive responses and acknowledgements of their pain in a very short time.

“Even if it is just in a small way, like an emoji, it’s still a lot of love very quickly,” Birkner said.

Rebecca Soffer with her late parents Shelby and Ray in 1997. (Courtesy)

At the same time, tech algorithms can inadvertently cause pain, like when Facebook puts together a collage of photos from the previous year, or parents receive an automated message reminding them to enroll their dead child in kindergarten.

Soffer, 41, pointed to characteristics of modern society that have drawn people to Modern Loss.

“We are trying to reboot a conversation about loss that in the past was more closed, more limited to religious community circles and houses of worship. There just aren’t the same kind of grieving spaces there used to be, because we are venturing further away from our nuclear families and we’re traveling more. Even our work families are not as settled and long-term as they once were, because we change jobs so often,” Soffer said.

“We are trying to provide that community for people in digital, and now in handheld, format,” she said.

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