The Surreal, Awkward Parts of Grief That No One Talks About

An anthology of essays, "Modern Loss," offers up honest and sometimes humorous stories about the reality of death and mourning in the digital age.
January 23, 2018, 10:33pm
A relaxed hand rests palm up on a blue floral fabric in window light
Photo by Juan Moyano via Stocksy. 

When you experience the death of a loved one, there are a lot of mundane yet painful details no one tells you about. When you have to rub off the weird coral lipstick the mortician put on your mother as she lay in the coffin, or when LinkedIn recommends that you connect with the old profile of your dead parent. These little manifestations of grief typically aren’t included in movies about loss. Neither is the weight you may dramatically gain or lose in the aftermath, the anxiety you might feel about spending away an inheritance, or the fact that triggers can take totally bizarre forms, like terrible coral lipstick, and stay with you for the rest of your life.

These are just a few of the experiences recounted in Modern Loss, an anthology of personal and prescriptive essays and comics edited by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, two only children who lost their parents far before they were ready. Through more than 40 contributions by writers both known and emerging, the book candidly and often humorously explores the nuances of grief. Although particularly well-suited for millenials who’ve lost a loved one, it would likely hit home for anyone with an interest in the human experience. Most of all, the anthology attempts to normalize conversations about loss to minimize the loneliness and awkwardness of grieving.

“We want people to feel like they can talk about loss and that they're not going to bring the record screeching to a halt in conversation,” Soffer says. “We want this to start not only really deep and meaningful conversations among people but also just to spark the confidence in someone to talk about loss without feeling like it has to be a deep and meaningful conversation.”

“I felt all of a sudden like I was simultaneously trying to build an entire life while also facing the fact that I had lost almost everything that had been very dear to me.”

For both Soffer and Birkner, the road to publishing Modern Loss (which they detail in the intro to the book) has been long and personal. For Birkner, it started in 2004 when her mother and stepfather hired a plumbing service to fix a frozen pipe at their home in Arizona. The man the company sent returned a month later high on meth and instead burglarized the couple and beat them to death. At the time, 24-year-old Birkner was living in New York city, working as a young obituaries writer at a community newspaper, but soon after was transferred to the transportation beat.

I Ate My Way Through Grief

About two years later, on Labor Day in 2006, Soffer’s mother died in a car crash following their family’s annual camping trip in upstate New York. Just an hour before getting into the violent accident on their back to Philadelphia, Soffer’s parents had dropped her off at home in New York City, where she worked as a producer for the Colbert Report. Four years later, when Soffer was 34, her father died of heart failure while alone on a cruise in the Caribbean.

During this time, Soffer and Birkner both found themselves in tragic and totally unfamiliar situations that none of their peers seemed to understand: They were young, grief-stricken, and parentless. “I felt all of a sudden like I was simultaneously trying to build an entire life while also facing the fact that I had lost almost everything that had been very dear to me,” Soffer recalls. “It was very lonely and it was very hard to find people who actually wanted to have a conversation.”

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Gabrielle Birkner (L) and Rebecca Soffer.

They each turned to the Internet for advice or any inkling that they would somehow, someday be okay. But the only resources they could find were either psychology websites that only worsened their suspicions that they were spiraling out of sanity, or self-help sites that consisted mainly of “italics and pastels and pull quotes with ellipses and sunsets.” Eventually, Soffer and Birkner found each other through a group of women in their twenties and early thirties that regularly met for dinner and support. They collectively called themselves “Women with Dead Parents” (or WWDP).

After becoming friends, Birkner and Soffer decided to create a resource for grieving people who wanted something more than “everything happens for a reason.” In late 2013, they founded ModernLoss.com, an online publication that tackles the topic of loss from every imaginable angle—from mourning a miscarriage to getting your sister to stop tagging you in photos of your dead dad.

“We want to cheerlead you through a moment where it could be 10 years after your mom died and you find yourself crying in the grocery store because you saw something or thought of a recipe that made you think of her,” says Soffer.

Over the past four years, the site has amassed a loyal readership and writer base, which has helped the co-editors identify the themes that seem to resonate most with their readers, such as letting people get close to you again, dealing with digital trails of lost ones, and grappling with discovered secrets. Nine of these themes eventually became the chapter topics for the Modern Loss book.

Although the book is lengthy, it doesn’t feel dense or exhausting. Rather, Birkner and Soffer designed it to be leisurely picked up and put down. They wanted to make sure it was something that people would be happy to display on their coffee tables rather than hide away for fear of making guests uncomfortable—bringing casual discussions about grief into our daily lives is the point, after all. To that end, it’s filled with illustrations by Peter Arkle, as well as tutorial comic strips for first-time grievers such as Tré Miller Rodriguez’s “Things to Know Before Scattering Ashes.” (Remember to stand upwind.)

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Some of the best essays in the anthology are the most remarkably ordinary, such as Kate Spencer’s account of how—despite everyone assuming she misses her mom most at milestone moments—she actually wishes above all else that they could just watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians together. Other moments that stand out are those that expose the awkward—and sometimes hilarious—incongruity of still being alive in the face of death. When Soffer’s best friend’s husband finds her vibrator in her underwear drawer, for instance, she can’t help but laugh, she writes. Even though he was only looking through it to help her pack for an impending trip to find out if her mother had survived what was a fatal crash.

Soffer says that, over the past four years, she and Birkner have noticed a definite shift toward an openness to talking about loss—partly because social media has become a platform for collective grieving. But besides being open and frank, she says it’s also important that we recognize as a culture that conversations about grief don’t always have to focus on the tragic, painful details of death. They can also be about the triumphs of life despite loss: “What it’s like for the person left behind, the person above ground,” says Soffer. “What happens to them—not only the bad and the ugly—but the good and the hilarious and the hopeful and the resilient.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Soffer worked as a writer for the Colbert Report. In fact, she was a producer.