Gabrielle Birkner (slightly younger than the age at which she co-wrote "Modern Loss") with her father,
Gabrielle Birkner (slightly younger than the age at which she co-wrote "Modern Loss") with her father,

‘Modern Loss’ authors show new ways to think about mourning

When a close relation dies, inheritance issues often come to the fore. Who gets mom’s diamond ring, dad’s Rolex, bubbe’s dinnerware? Why did zayde divide his estate among his grandchildren rather than his children?

That’s one dilemma Bay Area writer and producer Sara Faith Alterman didn’t have to face when her father, Ira, died of complications of early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015. No, all she had to deal with was a stash of novelty adult fiction — what she refers to as “ye olde porno rags” — that Ira had penned in the years before she was born.

Rebecca Soffer
Rebecca Soffer
Gabrielle Birkner
Gabrielle Birkner

Alterman writes with humor and candor about this legacy in one chapter of the recently published “Modern Loss: Candid Conversation about Grief. Beginners Welcome.” The book of essays about mourning was compiled by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, two Jewish Gen Xers who know something about loss.

Soffer’s mother died in a horrific car accident 12 years ago, and her father died, quite suddenly, four years later on a cruise ship. Birkner’s father and stepmother were brutally murdered in a home invasion 14 years ago. The two young women met at a dinner party in 2007 and bonded over their shared losses.

“[We] had a very quick connection,” Soffer said.

Both women understood what it was like for a 20-something to lose a parent.

“I had trouble finding contemporaries,’ Soffer continued. “I was isolated after my mother’s death … It took me a while to put my support team together, because Mom had been my total [go-to] person. There was a void dealing with profound loss at an earlier age than anticipated.”

She and Birkner could “inherently support each other,” Soffer said in advance of a book tour stop in the Bay Area that will include a Wednesday, Feb. 28 chat at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and a talk at Book Passage in Corte Madera the next night.

Amodloss-coverPublished Jan. 23, the book needed many years to take shape because the exigencies of life took over: career, marriage and family. Soffer worked as a producer at “The Colbert Report” and, for several years, at Reboot, a Jewish arts and social network aimed at young adults. She married a man with whom she first felt an emotional connection at her mother’s unveiling, an event she writes about in the “Intimacy” section of “Modern Loss.”

Birkner worked for many years in the Jewish media, including at the Forward newspaper and the JTA news service.

In 2013, Soffer proposed to Birkner that the time was ripe to focus on “Modern Loss” — but as website, not a book. The two had long talked about creating a platform in which mourners could write and share information about loss in an “open, candid, no-holds-barred, irreverent” way, Soffer said.

Launching took only a few months, as the writers Soffer and Birkner reached out to for submissions readily complied. The website quickly came to the attention of the publishing industry.

“Literally a couple of days after we went live, we were approached by a book agent,” Soffer said. “We signed with our agent while I was in the hospital going into labor [with my first child].”

The book’s four dozen or so contributors include many writers of Jewish heritage, some of whom, like Elisa Albert and David Sax, touch on their religious traditions, such as the shiva and the naming of a child after a deceased loved one.

Soffer and Birkner, each of whom penned multiple essays in “Modern Loss,” also do not shy away from the ways in which Judaism did or did not help in their coping with monumental loss.

“Early on, Jewish rituals were both comforting and challenging,” Birkner said. “For years after my father and stepmother were killed, I had a really difficult time with the Unetaneh Tokef, the ‘who shall live, and who shall die’ liturgical poem that is recited at Rosh Hashanah.

“Kaddish was also hard at first. Standing for it in a synagogue setting made me feel incredibly exposed. So now, whenever I’m at shul and the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited, I stand — even if it’s not my father’s and stepmother’s yahrzeit. I do this in solidarity with whoever is saying Kaddish that week, in the off-chance that they, too, are feeling alone or exposed.”

Complemented by edgy, New Yorker-like illustrations by Peter Arkle, the essays in “Modern Loss” alternate between funny and sad. Many of the individual pieces themselves zigzag between hilarity and pathos before landing on a wistful, ruminative note. But that’s what grief can feel like, reflected Alterman, who found the Modern Loss website soon after her father died.

“The first year was really hard,” Alterman said. But over time, she said, her grief “evolved from pure pain to more joy and humor … I am able to laugh at Dad and his [porno] books more and more.”

That, she hopes, is exactly what her father would have wanted. “He wouldn’t want us sitting around at a shiva,” she said.

“Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief.” Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner in conversation with NPR host Anna Sale at 6 p.m. Feb. 28, at Commonwealth Club, 110 The Embarcadero, S.F. $8-$20. Also 7 p.m. March 1 talk at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera. Free.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.