Parsing grief, the modern way

modern loss image
Pictured: Co-author Gabrielle Birkner with her beloved, late father

Dead. Dying. Deceased. Demise. 

Well into the 21st century, few of us want to be caught-um, dead-saying any of those "D" words aloud. There remains a whiff of a bad smell about them, and those of us who do speak them are often pegged as morbid. It is as if their very utterance could presage the inevitable and, conversely, the avoidance of their articulation could somehow forestall it. 

Now, two Jewish Gen Xers, Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer, are insisting that everything associated with mortality and, in its aftermath, grief, be discussed-and be discussed to the fullest extent possible. They are storming the barricade with their new book,  Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome,  (HarperCollins, 2018), a collection of true-to-life-and-death, often unorthodox stories that they and about four dozen other contributors have penned about mourning the death of a parent, child, spouse, lover, partner, friend, pet, and other significant beings.  

"I think there's still a taboo to talking about end-of-life/death/grief in polite company," said Birkner, who, in Modern Loss and elsewhere, has written with unflinching, unblinking honesty about the murders of her father and stepmother by a methamphetamine addict 14 years ago, a few years after she graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.  

In crafting the book, Soffer and Birkner have taken the Elizabeth Kubler Ross traditional five stages of grief and added several hundred.  

"For those who haven't yet experienced the loss of someone close to them, there's an expectation that after a certain amount of time-maybe six months or a year-you'll be 'over it' or will have found 'closure,'" said Birkner, who worked for a number of years in Jewish media, including at the  Forward  and the  JTA , and now lives in Los Angeles. "But grief doesn't adhere to a timeline, and everybody moves through it at a different pace." 

Both Birkner and Soffer-who lost her mother in a car wreck 12 years ago and her father to a sudden heart attack four years later, while he was on a cruise-said that they took comfort in their religious traditions, including the  shiva  and the unveiling.  

In the first days following the death of her father and stepmother, Birkner said, "there were Jewish mourning rituals that provided a rhythm to my days, and there were trees planted in Israel in their honor, and people were always calling and bringing food and checking in." 

But as time elapsed, she said, and the year of traditional mourning had concluded, "the second year felt more like pure grief-especially without some of the cushions built into that first year." 

For Soffer, her mother's unveiling at a Jewish cemetery in suburban Philadelphia proved to be revelatory and healing in ways she had not imagined. "The service was beautiful," the now New York-based Soffer writes in  Modern Loss . "I'd worked hard to plan it, and it was a productive way in which to channel my why-am-I-still-so-messed-up? energy." 

But for the then-single Soffer, who had met a spate of emotionally unavailable men in the year since her mother had died, it was a gratifying surprise to find in attendance at the unveiling a young man she had begun dating fairly recently. "[I]t's where I realized the guy I was casually seeing might actually be the guy I'd marry," she writes. (Spoiler alert: she married the very same guy two years later in the Berkshires.) 

The genesis of  Modern Loss  was a same-named website that Birkner and Soffer developed about four years ago-and that is still going strong. Featuring candid first-person accounts of grief, broken down by types of loss and related topics ("Funerals & Memorials," "Cancer," "Workplace Grief," "Wills & Estates" and "Suicide," for example), as well as an advice column, the original electronic platform does not shy away from addressing less-than-traditional expressions of mourning. As Birkner, Soffer and their grieving compatriots remind readers in the book form of  Modern Loss, grief can manifest as rip-roaring hilarity, along with garment-rending heartache, and many shades in between.  

While the book is not necessarily geared to a Jewish audience, a good chunk of its contributors are Jewish writers, including Elisa Albert and David Sax.  

In  Modern Loss , Albert, whose books include the Jewish-themed short story collection,  How This Night Is Different , writes movingly of an older brother's death and the sustenance she derived at his  shiva , which, she writes, "is the smartest, rightest, most essential ritual ever invented." 

A Canadian Jew, Sax, who came to readers' attention with his paean to Jewish eateries,  Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen, tackles the Jewish tradition of naming children after a beloved family member of blessed memory.  

Birkner and Soffer have also teamed up with illustrator Peter Arkle, whose wry, occasionally guffaw-worthy drawings pepper the book.  

As Birkner said, "Grief is messy, and it's often darkly hilarious."    

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.   


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