After losing both of her parents, Rebecca Soffer started having monthly dinner parties with a group she named WWDP (Women With Dead Parents). These raw and often irreverent gatherings eventually became Modern Loss, a vibrant community that offers support and validation via blog posts, advice columns, and events. Its most enthusiastic supporters now have the opportunity to become Patreon members, receiving access to exclusive benefits.
Rebecca’s first book, Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome, coauthored with Gabrielle Birkner, was a smashing success. Now, while she continues providing resources to the bereaved, she’s working on her next book: The Modern Loss Handbook, an interactive guide that helps individuals move through grief and build up their resilience. It will be published in 2021 by Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, the same publisher of my books, Passed and Present, Always Too Soon, and Parentless Parents. I hope you enjoy this Q & A with Rebecca as much as I enjoyed speaking with her.
Allison Gilbert: What one memento reminds you most of your parents?
Rebecca Soffer: So many physical things evoke memories of my mom and dad. But I’d say the one that offers the biggest connection is a beautiful aglaonema planted in a pretty pot that was in their home for years. Mercifully, it’s idiot-proof with regard to care (I have a notoriously not green thumb) and has managed to not only survive but thrive in my possession for more than a decade. Deep down I know eventually it will die; but as long as it’s still going, it feels good to know something my parents cared for is still thriving in my presence. And the fact that I’ve inadvertently ignored it at times and it’s still miraculously alive is a bit of a metaphor for the parent-child bond: sometimes you argue, sometimes life pulls you in different directions, but you’re always there for each other. At least, we were. [This added post may also be of interest! Read about the healing power of gardening here.]
Allison: Where do you keep your plant?
Rebecca: It’s in my living room.
Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping your parents’ memories alive?
Rebecca: My dad instilled in me a deep love of all things outdoors; especially camping, to which he introduced me when I was only two months old! When I had kids, I promised myself it would be something I would teach them to love, too. And I have.
With regard to my mom and grandmom – who died within six months of each other – I loved their food so much; especially the traditional Jewish food they’d make with each other on holidays as they laughed and teased each other in the kitchen. It equates pure love to me. Before they died I hadn’t even thought to attempt making a brisket or kugel or kasha and bowties, but afterward I felt this deep urgency to learn how to carry the tradition forward. Cooking is already a very meditative exercise for me, so just the process of making that stuff for myself and people I love is so meaningful, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly.
[AG note: Gwyneth Paltrow feels super connected to her dad when she cooks. Learn more here.]
When it comes to remembering random anecdotes about both of my parents, I developed a little trick during the bedtime routine with my kids (I have 3 and 6 year old boys). Sometimes I tell them stories about one or both of their grandparents (who they never met) based on their personalities or funny memories and experiences I cherish. Sometimes I even turn them into superheroes to make it extra fun. It’s become a wonderful practice for me because when I’m laying in their darkened room, trying to come up with ideas, it jogs my memory and recollections I thought I might have forgotten just kind of naturally come to the surface. As a byproduct, my kids get to learn all these neat little details about their grandparents.
Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience and sparks happiness. Have you found this to be the case?
Rebecca: Look, there have been plenty of times when I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid remembering certain things about my parents, especially in those early days after they died. It’s just human nature to have that stuff hurt more than help sometimes. I even have a piece of furniture that stores some of the more sentimental documents I have – their postcards, birthday letters to me, etc. – and to this day, there are some that feel too painful to go through.
That said, the more time that goes by without them, the more I feel the need to remember them as fully as possible. Not just their very best qualities but their flaws, as well. As I move through life, it’s a lot better for me to see them as human beings who were trying their best and not just parents I’d hoped were perfect. It assures me I’m doing the best I can, too. And that makes me feel stronger and more resilient.
Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Rebecca: I tended to live in the moment beforehand – jump first, look later – but there’s no doubt I’m even more adherent to a carpe diem attitude now. I’m highly aware we aren’t promised any particular period of time on Earth and I just want to make sure that if something moves me to act — an idea, a project, an opportunity to do something meaningful — that I have the guts to just go for it. That’s not to say that I don’t have the tendency to be neurotic and worry about the future. Trust me, I do that all the time!
When it comes to focusing on what’s important: one million percent. I’ve made some of the best friends in my life post-loss and have had some people I thought were close friends fade away in the wake of it. I put a lot of energy into my personal relationships; into maintaining contact and remembering important dates and just gathering random friends who I think would like each other for dinners and drinks. And when it comes to my family, I do think I’m able to be a bit more in the moment with my kids; notice things they’re doing, enjoying, and achieving. I just want to remember as much as I can.
With regards to creativity and meaning, I’m confident there is no way I’d have launched Modern Loss without having experienced profound loss in my life. It’s just not a thing that was on my radar until it was and I realized how incredibly isolating it could be. It’s been such an honor to help launch and run this publication and really grow this community. It’s been humbling and educational and, yes, even really fun. The grief club is full of pretty amazing people and there’s an enormous opportunity for creativity and humor and inspiration within this conversation.
And when it comes to compassion, absolutely: the realization that you just never know what someone else is going through is always top of my mind. It helps me take a beat and a breath before responding to someone who may not be on my wavelength. If you get people to start sharing their story by opening up a bit about yours, it’s astounding what types of bridges can be built.