Welcome to TEARS AND TEQUILA TALKS, our ongoing discussion series with an amazing group of writers, experts, and influencers on the topic of loss, recovery and personal growth. Hosted by Tears and Tequila co-authors Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman.
Rebecca Soffer was just 30 years old when her mother Shelby was killed in a car accident, one hour after dropping Rebecca off from a family camping trip to the Adirondacks. Four years later, her father died of a heart attack while on a cruise to the Bahamas.
Rebecca’s friend, Gabrielle Birkner, was a 24-year-old journalist writing obituaries for a local newspaper when she received word that her father and stepmother had been murdered during a home invasion.
Together with Gabrielle and some other friends, Rebecca formed a monthly dinner party called WWDP (Women With Dead Parents) and it was at these regular gatherings that the foundation for Modern Loss was born: No apologies, no accusations, no questions asked.
Since launching their website, Modern Loss has become a comfortable gathering spot for a younger generation at ease with the openness and sharing elements of the social media era. The tone of the website is much like their old dinner group conversations: loose, occasionally sarcastic, wide-ranging, and nonjudgmental.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Rebecca and Gabrielle, thank you so much for being part of Tears and Tequila Talks. Jo-Ann and I are both big fans of your site and the exciting things you are doing.
I’m fascinated by the origin stories behind big ideas. Rebecca, before Modern Loss, you and Gabrielle and a few other friends had started a regular dinner party to get together and and share honest conversations about the difficulty of losing your parents. At some point you decided that it could be more than a dinner party. How did that transpire?
REBECCA SOFFER (Modern Loss): Linda, first of all, thanks so much to you and Jo-Ann for including us in this fantastic project.
Our dinners began in 2006, when a mutual friend of ours who had lost her father realized she knew several people in their 20s and early 30s going through deep loss and suggested we all meet up.
Everyone had several, well-meaning, close friends, but many hadn’t a clue as to provide real comfort and meaningful support. And that’s probably because we ourselves had no idea what we needed. Yet others disappeared into the ether out of sheer discomfort. Which sucked.
To compound matters, since we were all working full-time in driven workplaces, our weekdays were spent compartmentalizing our feelings. I was working for “The Colbert Report,” immersing myself daily in what was an incredible comedy setting but, as you might imagine, a highly inappropriate landscape in which to break down and cry in a stairwell.
The first time we hung out, the shared feeling of relief was instantaneous. As our About Us page describes: “A general ‘I get it.’ No apologies, no accusations, no questions asked.” We realized we could just “be” at dinner – not our work selves or our girlfriend selves or worried daughter selves any other roles. We gave ourselves permission to commiserate over our triggers and laugh at the absurdity of our situations (because we all know there is so much humor stemming from the mess of loss, and recognizing it is what keeps you sane). We called ourselves WWDP – Women With Dead Parents.
At the same time, I’d been searching for online support. Anything that could be an extension of the candid atmosphere we’d created in WWDP but one I could access from my desk at work or on the crosstown bus or from bed at 4 am. There’s some amazing stuff out there but I didn’t find anything that spoke to me in the tones I wanted – welcoming, not cheesy or too clinical, no “do’s” or “don’ts,” nonreligious, with a heavy dose of cheekiness. In addition to really good resources, I was desperate to read other people’s stories about loss to make me feel like I wasn’t the only one going through seemingly crazy experiences. And, as importantly, find a place that provided solid advice for supporting others going through loss.
Finally, I realized that as a writer and producer, I could do a great job of creating this. But I didn’t want to embark on such a project alone, since the whole point of it was to build community. And I wanted to wait a couple of years so that it was more of a professional endeavor than a personal therapy project. Gabi and I had become particularly close, and she was looking for the same things I was. She’s an incredible journalist and editor and while we share many strengths, we also compliment each other in personal and professional areas.
So when her schedule opened up last year I gave her the hard sell on creating Modern Loss, and we jumped in. We pushed play on the site last November, a month before I had my baby boy and three months before Gabi had hers. And here we are, exhausted but motivated!
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): The Internet has opened up a whole new approach to grief support, providing a community gathering spot for people who are going through a period loss and transition. In your opinion, what affect have online hubs like Modern Loss and others had on the process of grieving and loss?
REBECCA SOFFER (Modern Loss): Sites like ours yank the issue out of the shadows. For a few years I had trouble being honest about the fact that my mom, and then, my dad, were dead. At cocktail parties when people asked if my family still lived in Philadelphia, I’d actually lie and say yes, because I didn’t want to deal with the metaphorical crickets. It always seemed like my responsibility to make people feel comfortable when I dropped that bomb. But what eventually made me feel better and more secure was when I started talking about my loss in public. It didn’t have to be this woe-is-me conversation. Just something that was a huge part of me and one I wasn’t willing to hide any longer.
I believe the same thing happens online, just to a much, much wider audience. By having easy access to other people’s real stories about loss and grief, someone will feel less isolated in their own experiences. Loss is so incredibly isolating, even if you’re surrounded by the best of friends and family. If you can read a stranger’s story that shares common threads with yours, it can do wonders. Not everyone has the time to slog through “The Year of Magical Thinking” (one of my favorite books, don’t get me wrong!) but everyone has time to read a 700-word essay.
Also, these sites provide an opportunity for more meaningful, thoughtful action. We reach most of our audience through social media, where posts about someone who lost their brother to suicide can easily stream after one about a teacher who showed up drunk and pantless to her first class. Will you just “like” that post? Or will you think about someone you know, even distantly, who may be going through a similar thing and have a higher level of empathy for them? So I guess our grand goal, and the goal of other sites like ours, is to really change the way Western society approaches this still very taboo subject.
JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): There does seem to be a generational shift in effect, with younger digital native types seemingly more comfortable sharing emotions online. What were your experiences personally, and what do you think visitors to Modern Loss are looking for that perhaps they are not finding elsewhere?
GABRIELLE BIRKNER (Modern Loss): In the age of social sharing, we see that people are more open about everything — and that inevitably includes grief and loss. Which makes sense because, really, what’s more universal than death? Social media has become a very expedient way, if not a very intimate one, for people to share news about a death in their family. And once you hear about someone’s loss, the question becomes: What do you do? Do you “like” their status, or write a few quick words below the post? Or does that knowledge become the impetus for more meaningful action, like sending a card, like taking the time to visit, like asking the person “What can I do?” and listening when they answer. On anniversaries of my father’s and stepmother’s deaths, when I’ve posted photos and remembrances online, I’ve been touched both by the quick responses that people have written below the post, and the larger actions that just reminding someone that it’s a tough day for me inspired: memorial donations, dinner invitations, etc.
I think a major appeal of Modern Loss is that we’re talking about death in a society that is still pretty averse to talking about death. Beyond breaking that taboo, I think the candidness of our approach resonates with people. It’s not saccharine. It’s not about making those we lost into superheroes. It’s not about “getting over it,” but it’s also not about staying stuck.
Humor and the absurdity of what happens to us after we lose someone we love are common threads that run through our pieces. One writer imagines watching the “Kardashians” with her late mother; another finds out that her husband had been cheating on her before his fatal scuba accident; another, still, finds solace on returning again and again to a Google Street View image of his recently deceased father. Another appeal of the site is the quality of the writing. We’re not just a repository for stories about loss; we’re a repository for good writing about loss.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Yes, exactly. When I read Modern Loss, it’s clear that the narrative is driven by honesty, most of all. There does seem to be almost a movement of sorts to open the doors on real feelings about hard times, whether it’s a sickness, a death, or other form of coping for a new generation—the 2.0 Generation. And more frequently, women seem to be leading the charge in these articles, blogs and emotionally searing conversations. What do you attest to the rise of women-driven media properties like Modern Loss, Marie Forleo and others like you?
GABRIELLE BIRKNER (Modern Loss): That’s a keen observation, Linda. I think you’re right that women are playing a disproportionately large and important role in this sphere.
Before I dive into why I think that is, I want to mention that Modern Loss, while founded last fall by two women — two very pregnant women! — is a site for women and men. We’ve had some really powerful contributions from men. In one particularly poignant essay, Michael Flamini, a never-married gay man, wrestles with the idea of calling himself a “widower” after his longtime partner dies. And in an essay that is equal parts funny and fraught, David Sax writes about the challenge of choosing a name for his baby that would honor his wife’s late father. There are other examples on the site, and there are forthcoming pieces, too.
But you’re correct in noting that much of the personal writing about long-taboo topics is being done by women. Women are also at the forefront of creating safe spaces and communities where these taboo conversations can happen. Modern Loss is one of these spaces.
I think the role of women here has at least something to do with persistent and harmful societal expectations of men. I still don’t think they are given social permission to express emotions — including strong emotions around grief — as openly as women are.
For years, I attended a support group for families of homicide victims and the overwhelming majority of participants were women. I don’t think that’s because men weren’t hurting as much as their wives or sisters or daughters, or because they were less likely to get something out of the experience. I think it’s more that they cast themselves in (or were cast in) a supportive role in the aftermath of loss.
A lot of the innovation around grief and loss comes from having shared your story with others, and having received a range of responses in the process. That’s what helps you understand what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change.
Linda, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why women seem to be leading the charge here.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Gabi, I couldn’t agree more with your observation: “I think the role of women here has at least something to do with persistent and harmful societal expectations of men.”
“Suck it up,” “Don’t be weak,” and the most pernicious of all, “Act like a man,” have been consistent social messages to men, all designed to sabotage their expressions of pain, loss and grief.
At the same time, I wonder about the age factor. My son, who is in his 30’s and an artist/designer, had no trouble showing his pain and grief when his girlfriend died of a drug overdose. But as an artist, he’s obviously on the fringe of societal expectations. Although more and more, I see men who are willing to cry in current movies/TV shows, in a 30 day Writing Through Grief Boot Camp I am currently writing in, of the 50-some daily writers, only a handful are men.
I would have thought anonymity would help with men expressing their grief. On the other hand, since men have been socialized to ‘stuff it’ at times of great loss, those ancient wheels of self-expression seem to be rusted shut.
Perhaps we, as female writers about grief, can reach out to more men who are in pain and grief? I don’t yet know the form. I certainly know it’s badly needed.
God knows, learning how much unexpressed pain Robin Williams was in is one hell of a wakeup call.
Switching topics, Modern Loss recently hosted your first live event–Modern Loss — Live in NYC, which included a special screening of HBO’s The (Dead Mothers) Club and a Q&A with the filmmakers. How do you see Modern Loss evolving as you go forward in terms of creating a physical hub as well as an online one?
REBECCA SOFFER (Modern Loss): Well, we’d been searching for the ideal first event for a while. When we attended the film’s red carpet premiere at HBO last spring, we knew this was it. We love how Carlyle Rubin and Katie Green, the filmmakers, are also helping to open up the conversation about loss through their passion for video storytelling. We bonded over the fact that we’ve all ironically become these unwitting “poster children” for loss. But not ones that convey an image of being curled up on a sofa in an old bathrobe, listening to Joni Mitchell and nursing cheap wine (though, ok, I may have specifically done this once or twice). Rather, ones who have no issue saying, “This awful thing happened to me, and it’s incredibly unfair and painful but it is what it is. I can either let it own me or I can own it and try to live an awesome life in spite of it.”
In terms of the event giving us a sense for the demand out there for such gatherings: We had space for 60 people. The producer in me worried that we might not be able to fill the room, much less fill it with people who’d help make it a positive, even celebratory evening. After all, we were inviting them to watch a film about dead mothers!
In the end, we not only filled the room within two days but also had a waitlist of 30 people. They lingered for hours having post-screening drinks, sharing stories, making brunch plans, swapping Facebook information (and there may have even been one date that came out of it!). The experience gave us an incredible feeling of wow, when you’re really mindful about setting a positive tone, people will respond eagerly. So stay tuned, as we have several creative partnerships and event ideas brewing–maybe even one with you guys!
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I hope so, Rebecca. In the meantime though, on behalf of Jo-Ann and I, thank you both for all the wonderful work you do and for so much for participating in Tears & Tequila Talks.
REBECCA SOFFER (Modern Loss): Our pleasure!
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