We don’t ask our grantees to report back after funding their projects, but that doesn’t mean we’re not curious about what happened after they got the money.
Rebecca Soffer is a journalist, producer and editor with 25+ years creating “media that matters” in TV, print, radio and online. We gave Rebecca (and her co-founder Gabrielle Birkner) an Awesome Without Borders grant in 2014 for their project Modern Loss, a website providing advice and resources for others grappling with grief. Since then, Modern Loss has grown into a community of thousands around the world, supporting each other through loss via events, social media, and a book, Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Beginners Welcome. Her forthcoming book, The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Resilience, will be published in 2022 by Running Press books.
This interview was conducted in April 2021 and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
O: How has Modern Loss changed since the pandemic?
R: When the pandemic slammed into us all of a sudden, our community members had the rug pulled out from under their feet. So many of them had coping mechanisms that they had really built up to deal with their grief; everything from going to the gym or going to brunch with friends on Mother’s Day…anything that is an in-person activity or physical was suddenly inaccessible because we were all on lockdown, and that was out of their grasp and they needed to fill in with other coping mechanisms.
Because there were no in-person touchstones last Spring, I quickly pivoted to serve our readers’ great need for connection points.
At the time, we were offering some virtual special events with authors through Patreon, but I was still building that out. I have said since the day we launched in 2013 that this is not a death project, this is a life project. This is about the people who are above ground. The people who are left behind. The people who are very much alive. And we’re trying to show them, instead of tell them, how life is. Not everything is going to be okay ever again, but a lot will.
O: What have you learned about loss from the thousands of people who’ve shared their stories that you didn’t know when you started this work?
R: The word resilience is such a buzz word these days, but it’s such an important idea at Modern Loss. A lot of our readership is younger, in their 20s-40s. They’re really focused on building up their lives, but they’re also navigating profound loss. We’re helping them figure out tools and storytelling mechanisms to build resilience and live richly, not just in spite of their losses, but sometimes because of them. Our community teaches me that resilience can look like so many different things on any given day. It doesn’t just have to look like running the marathon in honor of your dad who died from leukemia. It can look like knowing when you need to fall apart for a day or two. It can look like drawing boundaries with your friendships, or self-advocating at work when you realize what you need but your managers aren’t offering it to you. I’ve learned that resilience and post-traumatic growth don’t always have to look like a show of visible strength.
O: What’s the least helpful thing one can say going through grief?
R: If you start any sentence trying to make someone feel better with the words, “At least…,” chances are, it’s not going in a good direction. If you try and assure them that you know how they feel, you don’t know how they feel. Everybody feels loss differently. Even people who are grieving the loss of the same person feel differently! If you try to assure them of something, like that it takes a year, or anything like that, that’s not going to be helpful. They’re going to feel like they now have to focus on what you said and compare it against how they’re feeling.
O: What’s the most effective, most helpful thing to hear?
R: Ask them questions about their person or their pet. Ask them open-ended questions that don’t end with yes or no. Ask them their name, ask them to share memories. When it comes to offering support, ask them specific things. Think about what you’re good at. Are you a really anal and logistically organized person? Great, can you offer something that’s organizationally based? Are you more of a touchy, feely person? Awesome, can you just make a note in your calendar to check in on them every week and ask how they’re feeling? The worst thing that can happen is that the person just doesn’t feel like talking or doesn’t feel like answering, but they’re never going to forget the fact that you care. The most important thing that we can do as witnesses to people’s grief is make it clear that we’re not scared off by their losses and that we are willing to sit with them in the discomfort in which they have to live and that we don’t think we’re going to catch it. And when you’re really at a loss for what to say, you can actually say that. And that’s the perfect thing to say. You can say, “I wish I knew exactly what to say. I wish I had these magic words, but I really don’t, but I care about you and I’m here.” That goes so far. It makes them feel seen and not invisible.
O: What do you hope people remember about you when you die?
R: That I loved laughing and finding humor even in the darkest of situations. My great hope is that people feel I left the world even just the tiniest bit more healed than it was when I came into it. But most of all, I want them to remember that I loved.
O: Summarize your experience with Modern Loss in 10 words or less.
R: Surprising, humbling, profound, hilarious, messy, terrifying, creative, confidence-building, comforting, inspiring.
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