November 13, 2019

Coping with Loss in the Age of the Internet

When my mother, Shulamit E. Kustanowitz, died in May 2011, the in-person Jewish community provided all the basics — post-shivah meals, abundant hugs and three places to say Kaddish: Temple Beth Am for daily minyan, Friday nights at IKAR and Shabbat mornings at B’nai David-Judea. Although I was grateful for the support, my emotional needs during that year turned out to be more complex.

Enter the online community, a place where I have long been quite comfortable in other parts of my life. And in my period of mourning, it was, as always, accessible anywhere and anytime, offering a steady stream of others who reached out with true empathy and suggestions for how to remember my mother in emotionally constructive ways, as well as how to cope with the ongoing recovery process. The live version of community was vital, but the virtual version — anonymous but still immediate — proved equally supportive.

And then, the High Holy Days hit.

“Who shall live and who shall die”
The words of the High Holy Days liturgy center on repentance, on images of a crime-and-punishment system that determines human fate. If you’re grieving and you believe in this system, then you must accept that at this time last year the bell tolled for someone special to you, and, as a result, that person is now lost to you and the world forever. For those mourning a loss, the “U’netaneh Tokef” prayer — enumerating all the different ways people can die — is particularly terrifying.

On Rosh Hashanah in 2003, the New York-based writer and former Forward editor Gabrielle Birkner was standing next to her father in synagogue, reciting “U’netaneh Tokef.” Five months later, her father and stepmother were murdered in a home invasion in Sedona, Ariz. “Reading this prayer every year is extraordinarily painful,” she told me recently. “The Book of Life being sealed was never anything but words and a metaphor to me before, but within a few months of saying it, my father and stepmother died in a really horrible way. I realized that every year the liturgy would be a trigger for me.”

“The High Holy Days can be really isolating,” noted independent writer and producer Rebecca Soffer, who — having lost both her parents within a four-year period — struggled specifically with Yizkor, the memorial prayer service. “Every Yizkor I have attended since losing my parents has been more isolating than comforting,” Soffer said.

When I was growing up, only adults who had lost immediate relatives attended Yizkor. The rest of us, especially the children, spent Yizkor hanging out in the hallways. By the time I moved to New York’s Upper West Side after college, some rabbis had started asking people to stay for Yizkor, in memory of those who — as fallen Israeli soldiers or Holocaust victims — may not have anyone to say Yizkor or Kaddish for them. I understood the reasoning, but emotionally it felt odd. My mother had always made clear to my brothers and me that we would have enough years in our lives that we’d have to stay in for Yizkor; there was no reason to start early. I think she wanted to prevent us from seeing adults break down in grief, and she also knew that, eventually, those tears mourning loss would be our own.

“Parents sending their kids out of the congregation makes such a statement about the discomfort dealing with death, loss and grief, and the process of remembering. I wish they’d request that the kids stay,” Soffer suggested when we talked in August. “The more we teach them that death isn’t for them, the more we encourage the fear and contagion element.”

But for me, in 2011, leaving for Yizkor ceased to be an option. I stood at IKAR, flanked by two friends who had lost their fathers. The rabbis circulated among the congregants, hearing individually the names of the people we were mourning. Rabbi Sharon Brous approached us, listening to each of my friends say their fathers’ names. I could barely say my mother’s name without disintegrating. The rabbi looked at the three of us together and said, “This is a holy sisterhood.” After she moved on, those women put their arms around me and literally supported me. We were bound by grief and responsible for one another. Thank goodness for in-person community.

For many Jews in their 20s and 30s, however, institutional membership may not even be on the agenda. Those in mourning instead often opt to access content and community through virtual channels. “Loss is not something that younger people expect, so when it happens, they may have no idea what to do,” Soffer said.

To offer some means of comfort to this group, Soffer, 37, and Birkner, 34, are working to launch, a virtual center offering support and community specifically targeted for people in their 20s to 40s who are dealing with loss and grief. Although the Web site is driven by the friends’ commitment to tikkun olam (fixing the world), Modern Loss is a project independent of religion.

After several months of planning, the self-funded initiative got a boost from Soffer’s connection with the ROI Community (for which I am a consultant) — a global network of young Jewish innovators and creatives. Founded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, ROI provided vital assistance in strategic and web development. The co-founders aim to launch the site later this fall.

As Birkner explained, “We’re trying to erase the stigma of loss and mourning because it’s something that everyone is going to go through at some point in their lives, whether they want to think about it or not.” Birkner further noted that the site will offer sections appealing to different stages of grief, including reflections “from people who have had a chance to process,” an advice column, an overview of mourning and memorial rituals, and practical essays covering topics like how to probate an estate or go through someone’s belongings after they’re gone.

As develops, its founders plan to include a community platform that will enable users to find one another based on a variety of factors, including location and type of loss. “An online article can’t bring you a potluck dish or a stiff drink,” Soffer said. “Hopefully we can help people dealing with loss realize they’re not alone and provide ways for them to connect with others in person.”

Circles of support
Since my mother’s death, I’ve convened five sessions on “21st Century Community Comfort” at Limmud conferences in Los Angeles, New York and the United Kingdom, reliably drawing between eight and 15 people to an opt-in space for reconnecting with grief-related challenges, all of us sharing resources and experiences. A few others joined who were as yet untouched by major losses, but eager to support those who grieve.

In early August, I sat with about eight other women around a backyard table in Echo Park, sharing a potluck meal as well as stories about our families and the people we’d lost. This was “The Dinner Party,” an emerging initiative in Los Angeles (with similar programs in the Bay Area, Baltimore, New York and Washington, D.C.), a self-described “collective of men and women out to change the way we approach life after loss, through candid conversation and breaking bread.”

According to “The Dinner Party” co-founder Lennon Flowers, these gatherings were inspired by “a desire to remember and celebrate the people we lost,” and by people who wanted to explore “the whole host of complicated and evolving emotions that accompany loss, but [who] also found that losing a parent had left us wanting to live each day more boldly. Our culture around grief rarely allows for that kind of exploration. Loss isn’t just something you experience for a year or two, before resuming life as usual. Losing a parent permanently affects the way in which we see and interact with the world, and we wanted a space to really dig into that.”

I am spending this year’s High Holy Days with my “holy sisterhood” at IKAR again. When launches this fall, I’ll contribute my content and will learn from its varied resources. And next time “The Dinner Party” convenes, I hope to invite a few friends.

Contemporary community, whether it’s built around Jewish life or loss or some other point of connection, aims for in-person intimacy. But intimacy can also happen online, even if it happens anonymously. This is much like the repentance we seek as a community through the High Holy Days liturgy — at some moments, it is breast-beatingly personal and, at others, our individual voices come together to join a group confession. Both structures are available to us, and each has its advantages. And those who grieve — which at some point during our lives, includes us all — know that while each of us mourns uniquely, we don’t have to be alone.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about grief and mourning tentatively titled “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After.” Kustanowitz blogs at and tweets as @EstherK on Twitter.