Americans love to talk about people who overcome the odds to survive serious injury or illness, but we don’t cope with death very well. Enter Modern Loss, a new website dedicated to helping us stop treating death and grief like embarrassments to be hidden away, and instead have an honest conversation about what it means to mourn.
The site was started by two women, Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, who lost parents at an early age and who are clearly opposed to the toxic forced optimism of American culture that can make grief all the more difficult. They promise a website that will be free of people adjudicating how sad you’re allowed to feel and a complete ban on the phrase, “everything happens for a reason.”
“For me, what helped was being heard,” Birkner told me over email, “not being told that I should be feeling better than I was because ‘God needed another angel,’ or because it had been six months and it was time to move on.” At Modern Loss, people can ask advice about coping, celebrate unorthodox responses to grief, and demand respect for their feelings instead of pretend to be over it already.
Birkner and Soffer are joining a number of other women who are already confronting American denialism about death and are demanding space for people to talk about grief and pain honestly. Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiences with breast cancer culture led her to write Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, a critique of Americans’ unwillingness to deal with “negative” thinking. Tig Notaro rocked the stand-up world recently with her bracing routine in which she forced the audience to look her in the eye as she talked about how much it sucks to endure breast cancer right after losing her mother. Meghan O’Rourke published a terrific series on grieving here at Slate. Ariel Levy’s recent piece in the New Yorker about her miscarriage is remarkable for the brutal honesty of the details and her unwillingness to put a happy ending on the enormity of her tragedy. Levy describes unnerving other people by not hiding her pain, and writes about making people look at a picture of her son in his brief moments of trying to live before dying. It’s a subversive act, but a necessary one.
Why women? Birkner theorized that women have more social “permission to grieve openly and intensely.” Hopefully sites like Modern Loss will help us all grant that permission to men as well.
Admitting up front to being kicked in the gut by the messy sadness of life, paradoxically, can help one make a life that’s less messy and sad overall. Birkner and Soffer, after all, want people to recover. “Life is long and should not only be bearable but enjoyable,” Soffer says. By discussing the process of grief more openly, they hope to help others get there, at their own pace and on their own terms.