What does it take to get 200 New Yorkers out on a cold winter night?
“You have shared your stories,” author Rebecca Soffer told a standing-room-only crowd at a hip Brooklyn bookshop, “and brought other people out of their own isolation after loss. Have a good time!”
The people in the crowd cheered. After all, they were here to launch “Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome,” a book based on the revolutionary and wildly popular Modern Loss website. Both are edited by Soffer. She and co-author Gabrielle Birkner are both moms, and they became all too familiar as young adults with the topic they have focused on.
Soffer’s mom died in a car accident, and shortly thereafter, her dad died of a heart attack. Birkner’s dad and stepmom were murdered in a home invasion. The two attended a weekly meeting called “Women with Dead Parents,” and in 2013, they launched their site, featuring personal essays on every aspect of grief, including inheritance, ambivalence and sex after death (here on earth, that is).
The site and book scoff at platitudes and dig deeper. But they also manage to make readers smile.
“I lost my mom 10 years ago, and Christmas was very much her thing,” Marisa Lee, a social entrepreneur, told the crowd. Her mom made such a huge deal about Christmas—“lights everywhere and lots of baby Jesuses”—that once she was gone, Marisa hated the holiday. She’d hole up with her godparents, which is what she was doing one Christmas when she fell down their stairs and broke her arm.
“Now I’m stuck. I’m on Percocet. I can’t drag myself anywhere,” said Marisa. So she was a sitting duck when her childhood best friend brought over cookies and the application for eHarmony, a dating service.
Reluctantly, Marisa agreed to meet up with some guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin, but at the last minute decided to cancel—until her friend insisted that would be rude. So she went on the date, and a year and a half later, “to once again make Christmas something (she) actually enjoyed,” that’s the day he asked her to marry him.
Michael Arceneaux, a journalist and author, suffered a very different loss. “Most people ask, ‘When did you first know you were gay?’” he told the crowd. “I knew I liked boys when I was 5.” But at 6, he knew something else: His uncle had just died of something called “AIDS,” and everyone in his family was calling his uncle a terrible word—a word for people just like Michael.
“I could never shake that feeling that ‘to like boys’ meant ‘to die,’” said Michael. “It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I really wanted to conquer that fear.” And somehow, he finally did.
His parents have yet to fully accept him, and he was talking to his 8-year-old niece recently. “She made a joke about a gay person, and I said, ‘Oh, beloved, we don’t say that.’” After gently explaining why, he hung up. The girl called him right back and said, “Uncle Mikey, I am so sorry. I don’t care if you’re gay. I miss you. Come home for Christmas.”
Not that every story at the book party ended with Christmas, but they did all end with hope. Then Soffer asked those in the audience whether they would like to try their hand at summing up their losses in “Six-Word Memoirs”—an idea created by the online magazine Smith.
A man who looked like a truck driver stood up. “I never saw her smile again,” he said.
“I’ll see a heartbeat someday,” said a woman in the crowd.
“Through the noise, purpose was born.”
Sometimes, purpose is born through the internet, too. And now, through a surprising new book.