Tears: An Occupational Hazard

Pondering the questions people ask when they hear that you are an editor of a website about loss

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blog-tearss“It’s Mom, how are you?” my mother launched in as soon as I picked up the phone.

“Actually, I’m a puddle on the floor,” I said, explaining that I was in the process of editing a forthcoming Modern Loss essay by a woman who had lost her young daughter to the genetic disease Tay-Sachs.

My mom is a therapist — she was calling between patients — and we spoke for a few minutes about the occupational hazards (tears, for one) of editing a website about death. Of course most of the pieces on Modern Loss are not “downers,” but rather stories written by people living with great joy and optimism in the face of loss; humor and the absurdity of what happens when we lose those closest to us are threads that run through much of our content.

Bill Frankel visits his late father on Google Street View. Megan Devine sets a supermarket lobster free on the New Year’s Eve after her partner drowned. Robyn Woodman comes to terms with her late husband’s serial philandering. In the moment after her mother dies, Annie Stamell records “Friends.” Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s dead mother communicates with her through fortune cookies.

It’s hardly saccharine stuff, and the piece I had been editing when my mom called was no exception. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that so much of our content is born of heartache that is unimaginable to those who haven’t been there.

“Is it hard — I mean, emotionally hard?” a friend asked me, as Rebecca and I were working toward our November 2013 site launch. I’ve been asked some permutation of that question many times since.

Yes, I tell them, explaining how last winter, when I was very pregnant with my second child — and I would tear up at, like, every other television commercial (“Look, Tide got that stubborn grass stain out. How beautiful!”) — I chose to do the more emotional editing work during the daytime, and the more rote production work after dark.

In the process of editing, I often think about people who “don’t know what to say” to a friend who has lost a loved one, and therefore choose to say — and do — nothing at all. However awkward it may be for the friend who is at a loss for words, that discomfort is small (microscopically tiny!) potatoes, compared to what the person who experienced a loss of more than words is going through. And Rebecca and I know full well that however hard it may be to edit the personal essays that come our way, it pales in comparison to what the writers have endured. And their willingness to share their stories provides comfort and community to so many.

Another question I sometimes get is whether if, like a war correspondent, I’ve become desensitized to stories of loss. I’ve never been a war correspondent — not even close — but I have covered my share of sad stories in the course of my decade in journalism.

I started my career as an obituary writer for a community newspaper, and remember distinctly so many of the obits that I wrote: the mother of five who died during childbirth, the young man with cerebral palsy who made every day count, and the teenager who died in a car wreck shortly after leaving a neighborhood house party. And then there were the many, many people who lived well into their eighties and whose deaths weren’t tragic in the traditional sense, but whose lives were too short for those who knew and loved them.

To the question of whether I’ve become desensitized, the answer is a resounding no. And I think this sensitivity serves me well, as an editor and a human. If I’m ever not a metaphorical puddle on the floor while reading a story by a grieving mother, then it’ll be time to find something else to do.

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