Grief can slap you in the face with shock, jolt you awake with terror, or knock you into an emotional coma. It can also bore you to tears, make you pee your pants laughing and even awaken your sexual desires. Just ask Rebecca Soffer, author, former producer for The Colbert Report, and co-founder of Modern Loss, an online and IRL community of people who “share the unspeakably taboo, unbelievably hilarious and unexpectedly beautiful terrain of navigating life after a death.”
Whether through the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or even the shattering of your faith in humanity – everyone experiences grief and loss. And, for those of us with hearts that stretch across oceans to reach our far-flung “nearest-and-dearests”, grief has its own particular flavor.
I met with Soffer, via Zoom, to ask her about loss and grief in the digital age – particularly for those of us who straddle culture, race, ethnicity, nation, or location.
Tell us about your in-between identity.
I’m completely American, born to American parents. But, I feel very multicultural from my life experiences. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, yet my mom made it clear that the world did not end at the end of my street. She was an ESL teacher in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s and taught me Spanish when I was little, which I picked up quickly. We also traveled a lot with my dad, who owned an international ad agency.
In high school, I spent a summer living in Teramo, a tiny town in Abruzzo, Italy with a family who didn’t speak any English, so I picked up a lot of Italian. I had the time of my life, making friends that I still keep in touch with today.
In my junior year of college, I studied at the University of Seville, Spain, where I enrolled directly. I felt very drawn to the culture of Andalucia. I’m a Jewish girl from Philadelphia. Yet, I feel like I should have been born somewhere on the Iberian peninsula or in Latin America. With the vivaciousness, the warmth, the importance of family, ritual, tradition, food – there were a lot of parallels between what I experienced there and my own culturally-Jewish family upbringing.
Finding a common denominator
The following year, while finishing my degree at Emory University, I got a job at CNN en Español. Later, I became a producer for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The most impactful multicultural experience I’ve had, though, was after college. I moved to Caracas, Venezuela for a year and a half, just before Hugo Chavez was elected president. I got a job at the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce through AIESEC, an international youth-run non-profit. It was 1998, I was fresh out of college and in the middle of Caracas. It was an overwhelmingly huge city and not the easiest place to live. But living there, I never felt more alive. It was one of the best and most formative times in my life.
My multicultural experiences cemented for me time and again the idea that you can always find a common denominator with anybody, anywhere in the world. And that’s a comforting thing.
My multicultural experiences cemented for me time and again the idea that you can always find a common denominator with anybody, anywhere in the world. And that’s a comforting thing.Rebecca Soffer, cofounder of Modern Loss
What are the common denominators when it comes to loss, especially given the collective grief we are facing today?
One of the few good things to come out of this is that all of us know what grief feels like right now. We all know what it’s like to feel completely alone while, at the same time, knowing this is a universal experience. Grief is a lonely thing, but it does feel slightly more manageable when you know the burden is being carried by a larger group of people.
Even for those who haven’t experienced a death loss in the last year, they still had things taken away from them. Their kids couldn’t go to school. They’re single and they can’t date easily anymore. Maybe they had a few more years to have kids and they’re watching that dream go away. We are dealing with the collective loss of dreams, realities, and our ideas of the future.
This pandemic is going to end. But, we are at the onset of an enormous grief pandemic which I believe we’re going to be dealing with for generations. My hope is that because we’re going through this together, all of us experiencing loss, this will make us more empathetic as a society.
Is there an upside to grief?
Grief is one of the most universal experiences. It stems from the loss of a deep connection to something or someone, which is an excruciating thing.
The upside is that you feel like an exposed nerve so frequently that sometimes you have no better coping mechanism than to share your story in a way that is vulnerable and raw – completely unfiltered. By creating and sharing your own narrative, you build bridges of understanding with other people despite differences in culture, mindsets, political leanings, or religious beliefs. Your story is your bridge. Sharing it gives others permission to do the same – creating a ripple effect.
Grief is humanizing, and sharing it is helpful and hopeful. I believe in the post-traumatic growth that comes when you dare to live richly in the face of deep loss.
What do you offer through Grief and Modern Loss?
My own mom died in a car accident when I was 30, and my dad died of a heart attack when I was 34. I felt incredibly alone with no one to talk to. I was struggling to ride the line between building a rich, fulfilling life and navigating profound loss. The only outlets I had were either laden with platitudes, overly clinical, or too religious. I just wanted to hear stories from actual humans with similar life experiences, not just a hand on my shoulder from someone telling me it would be ok because grief takes a year. I wanted examples of post-traumatic growth – of real resilience.
My Co-Founder Gabi (Gabrielle Birkner) and I launched Modern Loss in 2013. It’s a community focused on helping people navigate the long arc of loss as it relates to a death. We’re a life project – helping people to live rich, resilient lives with the time they have left, in spite of – and sometimes maybe because of – the hand they’ve been dealt.
Today, Modern Loss is a global movement with readers all over the world. We’re a platform for communal storytelling. I’m a big believer in getting help from people who have letters following their names, but you also need support from people who “get it,” who will listen and meet you where you are.
What impact has the digital revolution had on the way we grieve a loss?
Modern Loss was one of the first online peer-to-peer grief communities to exist. Despite the problems we’re seeing with social media, having an online community dedicated to post-traumatic growth that is accessible to everyone, regardless of location or socioeconomic status, is very powerful. Many of our readers share stories with us that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with people who are right next to them.
The online world provides low-touch access for people at any hour of the day, from anywhere in the world, to read a piece that resonates with them, pulls them out of their isolation, and makes them feel they can do this. They get exposure to perspectives on grief from around the world, which could only happen online.
When funerals go digital
For so many people whose loved ones died in 2020, it was a huge scramble to figure out what a funeral could look like, who could be present, and how to use online tools to bring people together virtually. Over the last year, we’ve learned better ways to use some of these digital tools to create more meaningful experiences. I recently attended a YouTube funeral, and it was shockingly moving. Of course, all of us would have rather been there in person. But, to see people sharing their comments and memories in real-time created an incredible sense of togetherness.
On one hand, I think it’s terrible when you have to say goodbye to someone over an iPad. We’re humans – we need to be together. That said, I do think we’re going to choose to hold on to some of these tools, even after we are able to meet in person. For people who are unable to travel due to illness, finances, disability, work, or even immigration status, utilizing digital tools to include everyone democratizes the experience and allows for more entry points for people to grieve communally.
What advice do you have for people who have experienced loss but can’t travel to grieve with loved ones?
Even if you have to attend a memorial online, create a physical ceremony in your home. Do something tactile that can give you a feeling of being there. Create an altar, an act of remembrance, or a meaningful ritual. We cover a lot of this on Modern Loss through personal essays and practical resources (financial, therapeutic, legal, how-to’s, etc.).
To learn more about Modern Loss visit www.modernloss.com, subscribe to their Substack newsletter, or pick up a copy of the book Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome., available on Amazon, Bookshop, or wherever books are sold.