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Rebecca Soffer on Grieving During the Holidays: ‘It’s a Minefield of Hard and Meaningful Memories’

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Grief is a shape shifter and we never really know how we’ll feel in a given moment until that moment arrives.”

By Diana Tramontano

Rebecca Soffer is the cofounder of Modern Loss, which offers creative, meaningful and encouraging content and community addressing the long arc of grief. She is also the bestselling author of The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience.

Zibby Mag: What’s your advice for getting through the holiday season during any stage of grief?

Rebecca Soffer: The best advice I can give is something someone posted a few years ago in the Modern Loss community: Let the day be the day.

We naturally brace ourselves for Big Days and Big Seasons, and the winter holiday stretch is the latter, filled with so many of the former. It’s a minefield of hard and meaningful memories, of longing and wishing, of loneliness against the backdrop of revelry and twinkling lights, maybe even some resentment and anger. And it’s made extra confusing by the fact that many of us also want to eke out some sort of enjoyment and meaning from the season; we want to figure out ways to both honor our people while also creating new meaning in their absence. That’s a tall order, especially in early grief.

And so, when someone wrote “let the day be the day” in response to another community member’s post about dreading the holidays, that said it all. I interpreted it as, yes, sure, it’s helpful to think ahead about what you want to do during the holiday season—which invitations feel good to say yes to, which ones you should decline, whether you want to get the hell out of dodge and not be around anything familiar or whether you want to immerse yourself in as much familiarity as possible for comfort, what type of rituals or activities make you feel connected to your person, etc.

But when the time actually comes, if your entire body is telling you that what you thought you wanted to do isn’t the thing you should be doing, then listen to it. Grief is a shape shifter, and we never really know how we’ll feel in a given moment until it arrives. Give yourself permission to change your plans with no guilt attached at any stage of living with loss, and remind yourself that whatever wave you are experiencing will not last forever.

What have you learned after publishing so many essays on loss?

I’ve learned that everyone has stories they want to share, but wonders if they are worth sharing. And I can assure you that they are. Even if you reach one person by having the bravery to stand in your narrative, and that person is yourself, you will make a difference.

How and why did you start writing about grief?

This would certainly not have been something I would have chosen to do if not for personal experience. I was working as a producer for Stephen Colbert when I was 30 and my mom, Shelby, was killed in a car accident an hour after she dropped me at my apartment following a family camping trip. Four years later, my dad died from a heart attack. It was so lonely and hard to navigate the build mode of my life alongside so much loss, and Modern Loss (which originally initiated as an online publication that I launched with my friend, Gabi Birkner) really came out of that sense of isolation and exasperation with how hard it seemed to talk about this stuff in broad daylight.

Why is humor so important in processing loss?

I don’t always have the ability to choose whether to dissolve into laughter or dissolve into tears, but whenever I do feel like I have some control, I’m someone who typically chooses laughter. Grief and humor are inextricable. Grief is a life experience on steroids, and it has endless permutations and combinations of ludicrous aspects. Sharing darkly humorous anecdotes can be an enormous emotional lifeline, not to mention a much-needed release. When we give ourselves permission to engage with the humor of it all, our walls come down a bit and it’s easier to connect with other people who can relate, and in turn build a meaningful support system (not to mention, it’s nice to know you aren’t the only person going through a completely crazy experience). Plus, laughing feels good! Grief can make us feel like everything around us feels totally familiar but just enough off so as to feel completely unfamiliar. Our sense of humor can remind us that we’re still in there, somehow.

What’s the most effective thing in your handbook that readers should remember?

I wrote the book that I really wished someone could have given me after my mom died (and also my dad). Something that would give me logical and creative ideas for staying connected with my parents, with myself, and with the world around me, and that would make it clear that this stuff isn’t accomplished in a linear progression with regard to timeline and stages! I actually encourage people to throw the book across the room or, say, let their cat sleep on it, to take any breaks they need to with zero guilt. Whenever you are ready to engage with your loss is the right time for you.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and intergalactic DJ. I only managed to become a regular journalist, but hey, you never know what the future holds regarding my prospects in space!

Top 3 favorite books?

This is an impossible question to answer! But I’ll answer in terms of the ones that have particular meaning and sentimental value: Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Canción Desesperada by Pablo Neruda (I’m fluent in Spanish and lived in Spain and Latin America); Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (it was the last book that my mom and I read together. I used to copy whatever her book club was doing!); and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by the singular Judy Blume, because as a girl I would frequently take it into a corner of the Bala Cynwyd Public Library, and I loved reading about a protagonist who both had Jewish heritage and who also was going through So Many Awkward and Confusing Things! To be honest, I can still identify with both those things.

Secrets to growing a community?

Start with what your gut is telling you to do. Then listen to what your community is telling you it needs. And as long as it isn’t detrimental to anyone, give it to them.

What’s your go-to gift?

Something that I know will feel good, taste good, or make someone smile.

How has your life changed since you published two books?

Something that I never envisioned myself doing for a living was public speaking. As someone who loved producing for television and writing stories, I never really aimed to be the front-of-house person. But since launching Modern Loss a decade ago (when I was nine months pregnant with my first child, incidentally!), and especially since my second book published in 2022, I’ve unwittingly dedicated a large part of my time to doing workshops and speaking at corporations, non-profit organizations, foundations and educational institutions. To be honest, I really love it. I’m a pretty social person, and while I love writing, I really need to offset that with IRL engagement. It’s enormously gratifying to give people a firsthand invitation to engage with topics that they really need to engage with—grief, mental health, building resilience and empathetic communities—in their workplaces, religious communities, and grief support communities, and I’ve been so fortunate to be able to do this internationally, too, including Canada, the UK, Italy, and Germany. I learn so much from the people who attend these events and feel all the richer for it.

Then again, at home, things have really only changed in the sense that I’m now the mom who has “only written two books,” according to my ten-year-old son!