Rebecca Soffer is the co-author of MODERN LOSS: A CANDID CONVERSATION ABOUT GRIEF. BEGINNERS WELCOME. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Rebecca is the founder of the online community and website, She is a nationally recognized speaker about loss and resilience and has contributed to Marie Claire, Refinery 29, Elle Decor and others. Rebecca was formerly a producer for the Colbert Report. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two young sons.

Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be here today with Rebecca Soffer who is the coauthor of Modern Loss: A Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Rebecca is the founder of the online community and website, She is a nationally recognized speaker about loss and resilience and has contributed to Marie Claire, Refinery29, Elle Decor, and others. Rebecca was formerly a producer for The Colbert Report. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two young sons.

Welcome, Rebecca Soffer.

Rebecca Soffer: Thank you so much for having me. I am never leaving this room. I’m sorry. You think I’m joking.

Zibby: I’m not joking. You can just come hang out. We can hang out together. Rebecca, your website Modern Loss is amazing. For those who don’t know, it has fantastic relevant articles about loss which are so readily accessible. You can even sort them by type of loss: spouse, mother, miscarriage, pet. You can also sort by topics related to death like funerals, wills, suicide, and parenting. There’s an Ask Modern Loss column, a section called Mourning Noon & Night, mourning, M-O-U-R-N.

Rebecca: Ha, ha.

Zibby: Ha, ha, ha. How-to section, essays like “Dude, Where’s My Grief?” It’s like the HuffPost for death. I called it HuffPostMortem, even though that doesn’t really make sense.

Rebecca: That’s good.

Zibby: Tell me how you started this website. I want to hear about basically the whole business of the website as well.

Rebecca: It’s safe to say that this is not something that I grew up thinking that I wanted to do in my life. In fact, I probably would’ve actively not wanted to do something like this. As we both know from personal experience, life happens. It happens very suddenly without warning. You just have to roll with it. It is what it is. I went to journalism school for my master’s. Then I was working in political satire in daily TV for The Colbert Report. That was the track that I was on. I wanted to produce satire that was really smart and eventually get sent all over the country eating the best apple pie and reporting on that. Instead, when I was thirty I came home from a family vacation when the show was on hiatus. My parents dropped me off at my apartment very late at night and kept driving to Philadelphia. I lived in New York City. They still lived in Philadelphia where I was raised. They had a terrible car accident just shortly after they dropped me off. My mother was thrown out of the car. She did not survive.

As an aside, I had to drive by that spot yesterday. I was in Pennsylvania all day for a project. I had to drive by that exit, 8A. Every time I drive by there, I know exactly what happened there. I have to listen to Katrina and the Waves or something to get my mind off of it. I lost my mother very suddenly. I was thirty. I had just turned thirty. I was living in New York. I was building up my life as much as I could. I was surrounded by other people who were doing the same. It was a really hard, isolating experience to suddenly be trying to build everything and also be losing so much of what made up my foundation and who was truly my best friend. My mom was my best friend on the entire planet. I had to keep going to work. I had to keep earning to pay my rent. I had to keep dating because I was single. I was living in a one-bedroom rental. I didn’t have a dog yet. I didn’t have all those things I wanted to unlock in life. I didn’t know how I was going to go about doing that in a way that was really fulfilling because I really felt like everything was over in that moment, as dramatic as it sounds. I think you know when you go through sudden, traumatic loss, you really can feel like you can’t see the light through the tunnel. It really does feel dark sometimes for a very long time. That’s how it felt with me.

I had to put up a big facade, pretend everything was okay because everyone wanted to feel comfortable. They wanted to feel comfortable around me. In order for them to feel comfortable, that meant me putting up a facade and pretending like I was cool. I did a really good job of convincing people I was totally fine. It took a lot of effort. Three and a half years after that, I had just gotten married. I was at home one morning on a day off from work. My brand-new husband came home. He told me that he had just gotten a call that my dad had a heart attack the night beforehand and he hadn’t survived. I had kind of been waiting for that to happen since the moment my mom died because that’s kind of what you do as a human being. You wait for the other shoe to drop. Within the span of four years, I lost both my parents. I was their only child between them. I’m an only child. It was so isolating. Not only did I not know that many people who had lost one parent at age thirty, which is not super, super young, but it’s really not that old — it’s young enough that the majority of people around you, your peers, can’t truly relate to you. To try and find someone who had lost both parents by age thirty-four, it was hard.

Zibby: Rebecca, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

Rebecca: Actually, hard, you know what? I’ll use the word impossible. I didn’t meet anybody. I don’t know how much potty language we can use on this.

Zibby: Whatever you want.

Rebecca: It was fucking terrible. It was really bad. It was really bad. I really didn’t know how I was going to move through it. I consider myself someone who has amazing friends, who loves being happy, loves laughing. I even worked in comedy, for god’s sakes. It was very challenging because I could not find the right team very easily. I couldn’t find the right grief counselor very easily. I couldn’t find the right community, the right tribe. I would try and go to support groups that were for people who had lost one parent or both parents. The first one I went to, I was by far the youngest one. I’m saying by decades I was the youngest one. Everyone was great. Everyone was super nice, but I really needed to be with other people who could show me, not just through commiseration that I wasn’t the only one, but could also show me through example that I had a lot of resilience in me and that I could realize that not by someone putting their hand on my shoulder and saying, “It’s going to be okay,” but rather by showing me through their examples of how they were moving through loss and showing me that, yeah, it’s still messy. It’s always a mess. It’s a mess ten years down the line for me, but there’s a lot of light. I needed to hold onto the hope that there was a lot of light and that I had a lot of life left and that I could live it well. I think my mother would’ve been really incredibly pissed off at me had I not tried to live a good life. That’s not what she raised me to do. At age thirty, she wouldn’t have wanted me to throw in the towel.

Modern Loss, in some ways, came out of this experience that I had of such abject isolation, such, I would say, hopelessness for a long time, so much struggle stemming from the insults to injury that come along with traumatic loss which was can be post-traumatic stress, which I very much had and did not know I had until I was diagnosed with it. In that moment, it all of a sudden made so much sense. My mom died in a car accident suddenly. Just really trying to find the right team of professionals to help, but also the right human beings in the world, be they good friends who really were super empathic and really loved me and just wanted to make an effort to be there and make it clear that they could sit with me in this discomfort, but also people who really came out of the woodwork to show me that they had gone through something. They were managing it. They were managing this dark and light together. Modern Loss, for me, my personal story, that’s why I’m involved in this Modern Loss experience.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for your story. You wrote it so beautifully in the book, so I knew. Just hearing it from you, it’s so heartbreaking. I’m just so sorry.

Rebecca: Thank you. Look, I feel like people’s visceral reaction when someone says that is like, “It’s okay.” It’s not okay.

Zibby: No, it’s not okay.

Rebecca: But it is what it is. We all have our things. We all have the hand that we’re dealt. I am living an amazing, rich life right now. I swear to you, I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me when I was thirty, the day, the month, the year, maybe the two years after I had been going through this, that someday I was going to be totally neurotic again about the little things, about, am I going to be five minutes late to pick up my toddler? Oh, my gosh, can I lose this pound? I really thought I was only going to be consumed by big honking questions such as, am I going to survive in this life without going insane? It’s not okay, but it is what it is. That is something that I have learned to live by and embrace and realize that the more that people can talk about what they’ve been through, talk about how they’ve been through a mess and are going through the mess, the more favors they’re doing to themselves, the more favors they’re doing to other people by not making other people feel like maybe they’re the only ones going through something, and the more favors they’re doing to society at large. We are not good about talking about this stuff. We’re not good at doing this. The more we can do it, the more we can do it in a “let it all hang out” kind of way with humor, because that’s really important, the more we’re going to really change a cultural conversation about what it is like to live with loss, and not like death, end of life. That, of course, is the root of this, but loss. What’s it like for the person above ground? It doesn’t always have to be okay, but it doesn’t always have to be awful. You don’t have to feel guilty because of it.

Zibby: Wow. Then how did you take that and make it into a website?

Rebecca: Very good question. These were very big questions that I was grappling with. I met my friend, Gabby Birkner, it was several months after my mom died. I was still in shock. I would say I was in shock for a good calendar year. She and I met at this ad hoc potluck dinner that someone put together. We clicked very quickly over the fact that we were both living with really crazy, insane loss. She had lost her dad and her stepmother in a break-in. They were murdered. She was in her twenties when this happened. I had lost my mom in a car accident. We were checking off all these random boxes of, oh, you had a different type of loss. I had this. We’re all dealing with different triggers. It was very interesting how quickly she and I clicked, not just because we were two Jews in media living on the Upper West Side. Obviously, we’re going to click. It was kind of a miracle we hadn’t met each other yet by that point. Of course, we clicked personality-wise, but we really clicked very quickly on a more fundamental level which was, ah, you get this. You get my neuroses. You get my monkey mind. You get where I’m coming from. You get why I’m so upset because a date ended so uncomfortably when I mentioned the phrase dead mom. You get it because you live this every day too, don’t you? That became this very fast and furious friendship.

A few years later after my dad died, I kept realizing that I was not really relating to a lot of the content out there on loss. A lot of it was really clinical. I was the poster child for getting sucked into the DMS four, and now five, and self-diagnosing. I always incorrectly self-diagnosed. I had nothing. I had PTSD, but I didn’t have — I was like, I’m a megalomaniac because all I can think of is my own loss. No, I was just really grieving. I was grieving. I was still moving through the worst of it. Then I found a lot of sites that were very religious. I’m a proud Jew. My kids go to synagogue preschool. I’m very involved in the community, but I don’t always turn toward the Talmud or turn toward something stemming from Jewish religion to deal with my loss as a guideline. In fact, I’m kind of an omnivore. If I read a Buddhist quote that resonates with me, amazing. If it’s something that is completely non-religious, just as good. I’m a big Brené Brown follower. I couldn’t just to go religion. I couldn’t just go to the psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ definitions of things that had to do with loss.

Then you go online and to do this day you’ll find a lot of really wonderfully beautifully done websites that might strike you as just not right for you because they’re really, frankly, super cheesy. They are all italicized. They have a lot of platitudes. They talk about people being in a better place or assuring you that it takes a year. Then you wonder what’s wrong with you. They have a lot of inspirational quotes. I’m all for a good inspirational quote, but what I really need to see is someone admitting how messed up they really feel sometimes and how loss can spill into every single aspect of your life. What I really needed was personal storytelling. I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m a producer. I just needed a good story. That, for me, was what I was missing. I realized I would read the back of The New York Times Magazine. I’d read a personal essay like Modern Love, an essay that someone would write. I think it came out after Modern Loss launched, but for example, Nina Riggs who wrote The Bright Hour, “A Couch is Just a Couch,” about how she was dying of cancer and she couldn’t decide on the couch purchase. It had so much meaning because it was going to be around after she was gone. Now, I wasn’t dying, but I was like, this is so meaningful. It’s about loss. It’s a personal story. I was so moved. I also felt seen. What I wanted to do was storytelling.

I approached Gabby and said, “Listen, we’re years out from our loss at this point. This is not going to be the Rebecca and Gabby project. This isn’t our personal blog. This is a publication that is very niche that is going to allow people to share their personal essay but also provide a backbone of practical resources like the ones you mentioned, an advice column, different therapeutic pieces, different financial pieces, legal pieces that can help people through the way and just be their friend that hangs out online that you can access at two thirty AM when you feel super lonely or you can go to from anywhere in the world when you might not ordinarily have a circle of people that you can see in real life. That’s what we want to be. We launched it in November. We’re almost five years old in a couple of weeks.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Rebecca: Thank you. 2013, we pressed play on this website. We launched it with a couple dozen really beautifully written personal essays. When I say beautiful, a lot of them were really funny and really raunchy because what we’re trying to show is that loss is not just about that first year. It’s not just about the funeral. It’s not just about the shiva period. It’s not just about after the ninety days. It’s not even about the first day after the first year. It’s about twenty-seven years later. It’s about when you become a parent two decades after you’re going through a loss, or you have a child and you’ve lost a sibling, or you’re going through something and you’ve lost a friend and something takes you by surprise. It’s about that. In the end, it’s just a really good, amazing storytelling platform that our goal is that it will do some good in the world.

Zibby: I personally feel such gratitude that you’ve started it, that it’s now a resource from now going forward, or for the last five years. I mentioned to you earlier, I had this period of — not that it’s in any way comparable, but I just happened to have a period of loss where within a year I lost my best friend and college roommate on 9/11. Then one of my really close friends from high school committed suicide, and both my grandfathers and my stepbrother unexpectedly. Everybody. It was a year from —

Rebecca: — That’s pretty comparable. It’s terrible.

Zibby: It was really bad. I was a mess. I was a total mess. I knew I had to get with it. I just couldn’t pick myself up. It got to the point where my family even was like, “Okay, that’s enough now.” Gagi, my grandmother who I was just mentioning is turning ninety-five, was like, “Okay, that’s enough.”

Rebecca: You’re like, but is it?

Zibby: I’m like, I know it should be. What you were saying, I looked for all the resources. I bought all these books online. I bought all these books, and nothing spoke to me because I was twenty-five at the time. Nothing was speaking to me. I feel so grateful that you — not only the website, but also the book which is a compilation of essays not just from you and Gabby, but from other people as well. It’s such an amazing resource. I also told you already, but since I got your book, I’ve had four friends lose someone very close to them. Each time, I’ve given them this book. I’m like, “This is what you need.” Every time, they were like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so perfect. Thank you. This came at just the right day.” I didn’t want to give it the day of. It’s after the funeral is over and everybody goes about their business.

Rebecca: When the casseroles are all eaten.

Zibby: Right. Then it’s like, then what?

Rebecca: That’s what that’s for.

Zibby: Your book has been helping so many people.

Rebecca: Thank you. That means a lot. Listen, I also want to say, you said it’s not comparable. You went through a huge number of losses. We always say that comparing loss, it’s a losing battle. Everyone’s personal experience is their own. I always say, “But I’m not a Syrian refugee whose child was washed up on the beach.” Thank god. All I know is that I lost my two best friends. That was my life. That was my reality. We always want people to realize that loss is loss is loss. If it is a meaningful loss to you, then that is the worst thing ever. It’s kind of comparing apples to oranges. There’s no comparison here. I’m so sorry that you went through that. It sounds like a really, really crappy string of experiences that I’m sure colored the way that you live.

Zibby: It’s changed everything about my life. I don’t know about you, I’m sure. At least for me, I turned a lot to writing. It sounds like you did as well and in different ways. I started writing about it for my business school newspaper which I think was shocking to the community because most people were not as open and sharing about emotions. I was with a lot of consultants and businesspeople. I was like, blah, blah, blah, let me just pour out my feelings. I tried dealing with it as best I could. Then when I tried to go back to normal work — I was in advertising. I was sitting at my desk and trying to work on the Pepperidge Farm account for this ad agency. I was like, I can’t do this.

Rebecca: It’s hard. It’s hard to look around. It’s hard to be like, why should I care about the Pepperidge — who cares?

Zibby: Not that I don’t love Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Rebecca: No, of course. It’s like, do they not know someone died? Do they not know death is imminent, that our time is limited? It’s so challenging. That’s one of the reasons I really believe in what Gabby and I are doing here. Look, the word modern, you could say that it’s for a younger demographic, and it’s true. Gabby was in her twenties. I was thirty and then in my early thirties went I through the deepest losses that we had. We were just very familiar with what it felt like to be people who are still building their lives. We were both single when this happened. We felt like kids still. In New York when you’re thirty, you’re a child. You’re renting. You’re living hand to mouth. I really counted on my parents being around for a very long time. Then suddenly, they weren’t. Not only were they not going to be, they weren’t. Both of them died very suddenly. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to either one of them. It was the worst. We are very familiar with what it feels like to be in a stage of life where you’re really building up your life, where you have to go. You have no choice but to focus on Pepperidge Farm because guess what? You have to pay your rent. You don’t get bereavement leave. Maybe your boss was nice and gave you a couple days, but hey, that account is still sitting around. Someone has to deal with it.

This country does not do a good job of supporting a lot of types of people, let me just say, but it really doesn’t do a good job of supporting people when they are going through some of their most vulnerable periods in life. Going through deep loss is one of them. The modern, yes, it suggests a younger demographic that we’re trying to reach where you’re not twelve and you maybe have a guidance counselor in school who’s actively looking out for you every day, parents who are maybe worried about you, checking in on you. You’re not ninety. You’re not your grandmother’s age in Palm Beach who has a community of retired people. They’re all going through loss repeatedly because that’s the way that life goes. You’re thirty and you’re like, what the hell? How can I be worried about this filings report at work when all I can picture is my mom’s funeral? That’s what we want to support. The modern kind of alludes to that. What we have realized over the last five years is that it actually really alludes to the way in which we approach the conversation. We have readers of every single age. We have tons of readers in their fifties, sixties, seventies. It’s because it’s how we approach it.

Zibby: I was going to say, it doesn’t feel like it skews that young to me when I was reading the essays. It can be for anybody.

Rebecca: It’s for anyone. You create this thing. You have an idea of what you think it’s going to be. Then you put it out into the world. The world does with it what it’s going to do with it. What it did with it was it proved to us that, hey, the joke’s on us. It’s actually for everyone. It’s really about our tone. That’s what it is. Do you want to deal with it through platitudes? Do you want to be sanctimonious about it? Are you going to be insulted that we pepper some of our pieces with obscenities? Okay, then don’t read us. That’s okay. As I just stated, there are plenty of amazing places where you can move through loss and read about loss. This isn’t for you. I would say, a lot of people, this is for them.

Zibby: That’s what’s so nice about it. Everybody experiences loss at one point or another. It’s something you just can’t avoid, whether it’s when you’re young or not.

Rebecca: If you care about something that’s living, you’re going to have loss. It’s inevitable.

Zibby: I’m just so grateful that you wrote it. Do you have any advice to people who want to support other people who have lost someone?

Rebecca: Yeah, I do. We have these tenets on the site which are like, “Here’s what you will get. Here’s what you won’t get.” Of course, we’re an online publication. We publish several times a week. Now we have this beautiful book. All of our pieces are on Facebook. We run this amazing closed Facebook group that anyone listening can join. It’s incredible. It’s off the record. It really has moved Gabby and me so deeply to see how total strangers really can support each other. We haven’t had to moderate, step in on one interaction in a year and a half. We haven’t had to shut down any thread. Everyone is so respectful. Everyone is so supportive. You know why? So many people join because they’re looking for their tribe. Some of their tribe members aren’t even the people who are directly closest to them in their day-to-day lives. They’re not getting, in some ways, the support that they wish they were getting from their closest friends. They come to this group to vent, to ask, to offer advice, to support others because it also feels good to do so. What I have learned, not as a therapist — I’m definitely just a person who’s been put through the wringer and has now learned through my own years-long experience of trial and error.

Also after publishing many, many pieces over the last five years, I’m pretty sure the most important thing that you can do to support a friend who is going through loss is make it clear to them that you are willing to sit in this uncomfortable, excruciating space with them and you will not make them feel marginalized or like something is wrong with them or tell them, “That’s enough now,” or try and edit their grief. My personal, non-therapeutic take is as long as you’re not hurting yourself or somebody else, you wave your flag. Everyone grieves differently. Everyone has a different timeline. I know that because my timeline is all over the place. I don’t have a timeline. I was trekking along in life, finally. Then I had my first child. What a can of worms that opened up, to have a kid and not have my mom and dad around and then realize they’d never meet them. For me, I think the biggest thing you can do for somebody is make it very clear, even if you don’t know what to say to them, you admit, “I literally don’t know the perfect thing to say to you, but I’m here. I love you,” or “I care about you,” if it’s a coworker. Even just say, “I’m so sorry. I’m here if you ever want to talk.” You keep reaching out. “I don’t know what the right thing to say is, but I really care about you. I’m here.” I think that if you continue to make that clear to someone, even if they say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” maybe on the tenth time they’ll say, “Hey, can you grab a beer?”

I think the worst thing you can do to someone is make them feel like something is wrong with them for how they’re grieving. People who are grieving already feel messed up enough to have to deal with society’s discomfort with the topic on top of all of that. I also think just in a practical way that if you’re trying to support someone, I think that little things are really easy. We live in this technological age where people are posting, “Mom, I miss you. It’s her birthday.” Or on Mother’s Day, you have a dead mom and you say, “I miss you, Mom.” Then someone writes “Heart” or the prayer hands. It’s like, oh, that’s nice. These people care about me. But don’t just leave a heart or a prayer hands on a Facebook comment thread. Why don’t you call the person? Why don’t you at least text them? Why don’t you make a little note in your Google Calendar and remember, when did her mom die? Let’s have a recurring reminder in my calendar. When was her mom’s birthday? Or when is my friend’s birthday? Check in. These are very, very simple things.

I think people get overwhelmed by not knowing how to be the perfect source of support for someone. The dirty little secret is it’s actually really not that hard. In many ways, it just comes down to being an active listener and doing little things that make it clear that you’re thinking of them. Sometimes by the way, it’s sending alcohol and like you say, sending books. Thank you so much for giving out our book. We think that our book is much better than an Edible Arrangement after losing somebody. Human beings, even in this day and age, I think we are inherently empathic. I think we inherently just really want to be loved. We want closeness. We want to be seen. We want our pain to be acknowledged. I really believe in the best of people still. Sometimes we just need some handholding.

Zibby: Thank you so much. I could sit here and talk to you literally all day long. I feel like we’re just getting started. In the interest of time, I should stop it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for all that you do to help so, so many people and for taking what was so painful for you and helping other people get through it and just know that there’s someone else out there listening in whatever way. Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca: Thank you.

Rebecca Soffer, MODERN LOSS

Rebecca Soffer, MODERN LOSS