About 200 well-dressed youngish people crammed into a bookstore in Dumbo to hear personal stories about that taboo topic that makes everyone uncomfortable. Death.
Of parents, spouses, uncles — and even kids.
They were here to launch “Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome,” a book based on the revolutionary and wildly popular “Modern Loss” website. Both are edited by Rebecca Soffer and co-author Gabrielle Birkner who, in turn, are writers, moms, and young adults who are all too familiar with the topic they have focused on.
Soffer’s mom died in a car accident, and shortly thereafter her dad died of a heart attack. Birkner’s dad and stepmom were murdered in a home invasion. The two attended a weekly meeting called “Women with Dead Parents,” and in 2013 they launched their site featuring personal essays on every aspect of grief, including inheritance, ambivalence, sex after death (here on earth, that is), and even the mix of emotions that can accompany the death of a cheating spouse.
The site and book scoff at platitudes and dig deeper. But they also manage to make readers smile — and sometimes guffaw. And so did the speakers who took to the podium at the book launch.
“I lost my mom 10 years ago and Christmas was very much her thing,” Marisa Lee, a social entrepreneur, told the crowd. Her mom made such a huge deal about Christmas — “Lights everywhere, and lots of Baby Jesuses” — that once she was gone, Lee hated the holiday. She’d hole up with her godparents, which is what she was doing one X-mas when she fell down their stairs and broke her arm.
“Now I’m stuck. I’m on Percoset. I can’t drag myself anywhere,” said Lee. So she was a sitting duck when her childhood best friend brought over cookies, and the application for eHarmony, an online dating service.
Reluctantly, Lee agreed to meet up with some guy from Green Bay, Wisconsin, but at the last minute decided to cancel — until her friend insisted that would be rude. So she went on the date and a year and a half later —on Christmas Day — he proposed and she accepted.
His reason for choosing Dec. 25 as the day he popped the question?
“To once again make Christmas something I actually enjoyed,” said Lee.
Look, she added, if you’re going through loss “anybody who tells you it’s going to be over soon — they’re lying.” But there is another side.
Michael Arceneaux, a journalist and author, suffered a very different loss.
“Most people ask, ‘When did you first know you were gay?’ ” he told the crowd. “I knew I liked boys when I was 5.” But at 6, he knew something else: His uncle had just died of something called “AIDS,” and everyone in his family was calling him a terrible word. A word for people just like Arceneaux.
“I could never shake that feeling that ‘to like boys’ meant ‘to die.’ I could not separate pleasure from paranoia,” he said. “It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I really wanted to conquer that fear.” And somehow he did.
While his parents have yet to fully accept him, he was talking to his niece recently — she is 8 — “and she made a joke about a gay person and I said, ‘Oh beloved, we don’t say that.’ ” And after gently explaining why, he hung up. The girl called him right back and said, “Uncle Mikey, I am so sorry. I don’t care if you’re gay. I miss you. Come home for Christmas.”
Not that every story at the party ended with Christmas, but they did all end with hope. Jamie Stelter, the NY1 traffic anchor, spoke of her miscarriages. She now has a toddler. Podcaster Rachel Ward spoke of her husband dying at 35. Somehow she’s still really funny. Emily Rapp Black lost her son Ronan at age 3 to Tay-Sachs disease, but later met a young man with the same name, and felt at peace.
Then Soffer asked the audience if they would like to try their hand at summing up their loss in a “Six Word Memoir” — an idea popularized by Smith Magazine.
A man who looked like a truck driver stood up. “I never saw her smile again,” he said.
“I’ll see a heartbeat some day,” said a woman in the crowd.
“Through the noise, purpose was born.”
Sometimes, purpose is born through the internet, too. And now, through a new book.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow.