The co-founder of Modern Loss, Rebecca Soffer, talks with Rabbi Seth Wax of Williams College about her new handbook about coping with grief
GREAT BARRINGTON – On Friday, September 16 at 10:45 a.m., Knosh & Knowledge hosts Rebecca Soffer, Berkshires resident and co-founder of Modern Loss. Her topic will be “The Sacred Season of Memory.”
Knosh & Knowledge programs take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road in Great Barrington.
PLEASE NOTE: Masks and vaccination for those eligible are required at this program.
The weeks leading up to the Days of Awe are a time on the Jewish calendar for reflection and remembrance that also mirror and amplify the daily lived experience of loss and memory. Join Rebecca Soffer for a talk about Modern Loss, a global movement and online platform of content, resources, and community.
Modern Loss focuses on eradicating the stigma around grief while also encouraging people to find meaning and live richly. Soffer’s talk will center around her new book, THE MODERN LOSS HANDBOOK: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience. Books will be available for purchase and book signing after the program.
Rebecca Soffer is cofounder of Modern Loss, a global movement offering creative, meaningful, and practical content and community addressing the long arc of grief. She is also co-author of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation about Grief. Beginners Welcome. (Harper Wave, 2018) and an internationally recognized speaker on loss and resilience. She writes regularly across media, including The New York Times, Glamour, NBC, and CNN. She is a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alumna and a Peabody Award-winning former producer for The Colbert Report. Rebecca and her husband and sons split their time between New York City and The Berkshires. For more information visit ModernLoss.com.
BJV Interview: Rebecca Soffer
By Rabbi Seth Wax / Special to the BJV
Rabbi Seth Wax, Jewish Chaplain at Williams College, sat down with Rebecca Soffer over the summer to talk about her work, loss, and what we might learn from being more real about our experiences of grief.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is your second book about grief. Before we talk about your newest book, can you talk about your previous one?
My first book came out in 2018 and is called, Modern Loss: Candid Conversation about Grief. Beginners Welcome. It’s a collection of more than 40 essays by myself and by my co-author, Gabby Birkner, and tons of other amazing people who wrote for it. We wanted to show that grief is not just one person’s experience. No one needs to read about what I, as an individual, am going through alone. There are a lot of great grief memoirs out there. I wanted to show that everybody has a story that’s worth telling and sharing. And it also has a lot of really great cartoons and infographics.
What are you trying to do in your new book?
My second book is a totally different format. It’s solo-authored by me. I’m trying to give people a lot of ways that will help them realize that they don’t need to wait for somebody to say, “Empower yourself!” to get through a really hard time. We all have abilities within ourselves. We just have to figure out how to use them and how to strengthen them. We all have a capacity for resilience, but each of us, in our own way, can learn how to grow that. We also benefit from having somebody coax things out of us, especially when we’re dealing with something like grief and the longer arc of loss.
In general, we don’t do a good job of talking about it outside of special corners of society, like in congregations or in therapy offices. I wanted to give people something in which, between two covers, they had something like a trusted friend who was making it clear that when you’re dealing with loss, it’s okay to say, “This is a mess. But there is no need to be scared. The scariest already happened. You lost somebody. But I am here to hold your hand, to acknowledge how messy it is. And to acknowledge how funny it is sometimes.” To help you figure out ways to stay connected to the person that you lost because that’s really important. How to stay connected to yourself because that’s just as important. And also, to stay connected to the world around you. All of those things are equally important when you’re moving through grief.
It helps to have somebody who has not only been through it but also brings their own experience. I do that, but I also bring the experience of thousands of members of the Modern Loss community from all over the world who have taught me exponentially more than I ever knew myself. The book also brings in experts with whom I’ve been really lucky to have positive relationships within the grief space.
I wanted to give the reader all of these options and present them in a way that was like not banging it over your head and saying, “This is the way,” because there isn’t a way. Grief is such an individualized experience. But there are a lot of things that you should try and consider. If they don’t work for you, great – move on to the next thing. But they might work for you at another time. In this book, you have a toolbox that’s full of a lot of different things that can help you in any given moment.
What is one of those tools in the toolkit that you think could be especially helpful?
There’s a whole section on memory. What was, what might have been. In the book, I ask a lot of things of the reader that are very heartwarming. Because when you’re in the early stages of grief, a lot of times you’re wrapped up in memories of the end-of-life experience, of the sickness experience. You’re really overwhelmed. For example, my mom died in a car accident, and I couldn’t listen to music for a full calendar year after she died.
In the book, I ask questions that help the reader to remember that you haven’t forgotten all the good stuff about the person who has died. A lot of us get scared, and worry, asking, “Am I going to forget my person’s laugh? Am I going to forget their jokes? Am I going to forget that thing that they always did that made it better?” I’m here to assure the reader, and to say, “No. I promise you that you’re not going to. You may not be ready to remember that stuff right now, given where you are in your experience with grief. But these questions are going to be here. The answers aren’t going to go anywhere. You just need to be in the right place to answer them.”
There’s also a section entitled, “The Tough Stuff,” in which I ask questions that aren’t really fun to think about and remember. For example, if the person who died ever didn’t apologize to you for something that really hurt you or did damage to you, but now they’re dead and you can’t ever talk to them about it anymore, how do you deal with that? Or is there anything that you wish you could have apologized for? Or is there a secret that you wish you had told them? There are all these unsavory, underbelly elements to our experience with grief. It’s complicated and nuanced. Sometimes answering those questions and considering those answers are more important than talking about the best dessert they ever made. Because your feelings stemming from your interactions with the person are still very much there inside you, which shows that the relationship is still very much alive. And if you don’t deal with that, it’s not going to go anywhere. You will never come to a state where you are going to have closure. But you can begin to address it, and pay attention to it. That builds resilience, and that enables you to free up more energy to do other things that take care of yourself.
Judaism came up in some funny ways in the book. There’s a humorous incident with a leather kippah [yarmulke] at a funeral that our readers might find interesting. Could you reflect on the role that Judaism or Jewish practice ritual played in your own experience or writing of this book?
This book is hugely informed by my being Jewish and my experience of Judaism. It inspires a lot of what is in the book. For example, shiva. Sadly, I’m a shiva expert. I buried both my parents, and I had to have two shivas. I had an unveiling for my mother. And then I learned from that that I didn’t like unveiling, and I didn’t actually have one for my dad because it was a really hard experience doing it for my mom. And I was like, well, “They’re not here.” I got a lot of permission from really kind people who told me that if something really doesn’t feel good, then don’t make yourself do it. And that, for me, is, again, another way in which this book is very Jewishly informed. I have a lot of really great people in my life who are rabbis or who work within the formal Jewish world, and a lot of them have provided me with meaningful support.
How do you feel like you changed through the course of writing this book? And also, how did writing this book change you?
This book was a real blessing for me, to be charged with writing. I pitched it the week of the George Floyd protests in late May and June 2020. I sold it right away. There was a lot of demand for it. I felt like I had a mandate from the Modern Loss community because it was growing very quickly during the early days of COVID, because a lot of people all of a sudden found themselves without in-person coping mechanisms. They couldn’t easily go to therapy. They couldn’t go to funerals or weddings or just hug people. They couldn’t do any of these things. So a lot of the coping mechanisms that they had developed that held their sanity together were gone. And we had to pivot to a lot of online support. And so this book was also a response to this huge need from so many community members who were dealing with resurfaced grief, or just new grief because a lot of people were losing people. And it was my way of sharing what I have learned and what I’ve learned from the Modern Loss community and from all these experts.