When Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner first went public with their plan to launch a cool website about grief and bereavement, the feedback they got was by no means all encouraging. "We got some sideways glances from people who thought we were the Grim Reaper coming to get them," recalls Soffer.
It's understandable. Who wants to think about death, however smartly presented? But that response, as much as anything, illustrated the need for an outlet like Modern Loss, the site they launched together in 2013. Grieving is a lonely enough process to begin with, but for people in their 20s and 30s, whose friends may never have experienced the death of anyone close to them, it can be thoroughly isolating. "When you lose someone so young, you really have to know someone else is out there moving through the same thing," says Soffer. "I needed to know from people who had been through the wringer and were still going through the wringer that it really could be OK."
For Soffer, the wringer came in 2006, when she was 30 years old and working as a television producer on The Colbert Report. An auto accident claimed the life of her mother; her father suffered a fatal heart attack four years later. For Birkner, it came even earlier. She was a 24-year-old newspaper reporter when a meth addict murdered her father and stepmother in their home.
In the dark months and years that followed, both discovered certain things. Friends were kind but impatient and full of useless advice. Prospective romantic partners, terrified of saying the wrong thing, would simply ghost. Social media, which was just then coming into popularity, offered an outlet for expressions of mourning and reminiscences, but it also flattened what should have been authentic interactions. "I think some people just put a sad emoji on your post and think their work is done," says Birkner.
The two were still navigating this new terrain in 2007 when they met in Manhattan at a dinner party-slash-support group for other survivors. They quickly bonded and became close friends. Before long, they were brainstorming on how to bring their collective expertise in the media world to bear on their shared experience of grieving as a young person in the digital age.
Modern Loss was the result of those conversations. The initial idea was a website that could be a resource for people seeking advice on matters from how to build a support network to how to sort through a deceased loved one's possessions. But it should also be, they felt, a place for sharing stories and connecting over them. Just as important was what it not be: the kind of online publications for mourners that already existed, with "inspirational quotes against pictures of soft sunsets," in Soffer's description.
The site launched in November 2013. The founders, who were both late in pregnancy with their first babies, relied on free office space provided by TheLi.st, a network for professional women, and discounted work by Web developers to get it off the ground. The response was immediate, not so much to the how-to articles as to the personal essays by people like the woman who discovered, after her beloved husband's death, that he had been a serial adulterer. Another writer recounted his practice of looking at his father on Google Street View; the mapping service's vehicles had randomly captured an image of him on the roadside, which lived on for a time after his death.
"These are personal stories, told in a very contemporary way," says Soffer. "They're not overly earnest or therapeutic. It's for people who are experiencing loss now, in the age of technology."
Technology figures large in Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome, a new book that collects many of the site's most popular essays, along with cartoons and essays by the co-founders. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the data people leave behind. It includes an essay by CNN's Brian Stelter on communing with his late New York Times colleague David Carr through their hundreds of emails.
The rest of the book is divided into other themes: triggers, intimacy, inheritance, collateral damage. "We've noticed again and again those are the themes that keep popping up," says Soffer. The essays that resonate are frequently the ones that combine death, the ultimate taboo, with another topic people have trouble talking about, like money or sex. "It's taboo on top of taboo on top of taboo," says Soffer.
Building a business on stories of grief itself involves taking on some of those taboos. In the manner of Silicon Valley startups, Modern Loss focused on attracting an audience before attempting to monetize it. The book is its first serious revenue-generating endeavor. Birkner always had day jobs until December, when she quit to focus on building out the company's editorial strategy full time.
Soffer, who handles the business side, says she has gotten many queries about advertising over the years, usually from funeral homes. "We kept telling them, 'You're missing the point of what we're doing.' "
But Modern Loss's media-savvy, technology-forward readers will, she thinks, be open to more lifestyle-oriented brand sponsorship. She's currently talking to several who are interested in underwriting newsletters and live events, including an upcoming retreat in the Berkshires. There's also a podcast in the works; the pilot episode features Lucy Kalanithi, the wife of Paul Kalanithi, who wrote the bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air as he was dying of lung cancer.
"The fact of the matter is Modern Loss needs to sustain itself," says Soffer. "It can't just be a labor of love forever."