Alysia Abbott’s father was out. So out and in the life that he asked his daughter to call him Steve so that men he was interested in wouldn’t know that he had a child.
Whitney Joiner’s father was closeted. So deeply that Joe Joiner referred to his illness as a “blood problem” and never, even at the end, openly admitted his homosexuality to his daughter.
Both men had AIDS when they died in 1992. And for nearly two decades afterward, their daughters wrestled with a grief they didn’t think anyone else could understand. Until Abbott and Joiner met a few years ago in New York, neither had ever known anyone else who had lost a parent to AIDS.
“It was such a shameful secret for so many people,” says Joiner, who grew up in Kentucky, where her father was a deacon at their church. “So many people were swept under the rug by their families and the culture.”
Joiner and Abbott felt as if their grief was swept under the same rug. How, they wondered, do you get over your sorrow if there’s no one you can share it with? How do you bear the mourning if you have to mourn alone? And how do you hold on to the memory of someone long-departed in our just-move-on culture?
Twenty-two years after their fathers’ deaths, they have their answer: the Internet. After all, it’s where everyone shares everything these days. It’s the space where so many of us spend so much of our lives. So to welcome in others who have suffered losses like theirs — and to bestow a kind of permanence on loved ones fading fast into the hinterlands of memory — they’ve created their own mourning Web site. In October, they launched the Recollectors, a storytelling site that’s a vehicle for both catharsis and oral history, where children who have lost family members to AIDS can share their tales.
The project is modeled in part on Modern Loss, a more general one-year-old site where readers share stories about departed family, friends (including the four-legged kind), children born and unborn. It was founded by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, New York-based writers and editors who both, at comparatively young ages, suffered the sudden loss of their parents. Like the Recollectors, it commemorates many who died before the Internet was born, people who would otherwise be invisible on the powerful information network. The site’s motto: “Candid conversations about grief. Beginners welcome.”
So many Americans are in fact amateurs at grief. Our youth-obsessed culture mostly avoids talking about death, disease, even aging (see: Renee Zellweger).
“We are completely and utterly divorced from death,” says George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology who runs Columbia University’s Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab who has helped debunk several popular notions of grieving, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s widely accepted five fixed stages. “We don’t have many ways of continuing the memory of people who are gone.”
The Recollectors and Modern Loss, which gets about 20,000 unique visitors a month, aren’t just massive dumping grounds where anyone can post without a filter — viral cemeteries of loss like the many memorial sites that proliferate on the Web. In an era of Too Much Information, the editors’ mission is to ensure that there’s just enough. Theirs are handsome, edited sites graced with art, photos and occasional humor. Of her father’s death from a heart attack on a cruise in the Bahamas, Soffer notes on her site: “Lucky him, unlucky everyone else.” There are unexpected and slightly startling offerings, like the Modern Loss essay, “My Dead Husband, the Serial Adulterer.”
“Loss is very messy,” says Soffer, who recently gave a talk on loss at Chicago Ideas Week, a conference of thought leaders. “It has a lot of frustration and anger but also hilarity and ludicrous aspects.”
The Web sites hope to illuminate the many ways we grieve and present new ways of remembering and talking about death and the dead. “Science tells us these people are gone, but we don’t have many ways to continue their memory,” says Bonanno, which makes Web sites like these potentially “very important.”
Moreover, says Bonanno, “There’s no one acceptable way to mourn.” Other cultures have more entrenched grieving traditions, with “millennium-old rituals linked to ‘the other world,’ ” but Americans are often at a loss as to how to grieve and for how long. And “we’re very hard on any religious and spiritual beliefs.”
Abbott, for her part, has come to embrace some of those beliefs, like the upcoming Day of the Dead, or All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2. “I like the idea of spending time with the spirits,” she says, the idea “that the missing doesn’t have to stop.”
Which is another reason for the Recollectors. She and Joiner regard the site as a source for activism, a place for remembering the 636,000 Americans who have died of AIDS-related illnessessince the disease first appeared in the early 1980s. They are also dedicated to reconstructing an often-forgotten part of AIDS history, “a history of the children who have been impacted but that has never been shared,” says Joiner. “This is a community that never had a way to come together.”
Adds Abbott:, who published the 2013 memoir “Fairyland” about her father, “Many people kept these stories secret. That really messed you up, that sense of isolation.” Children who lost parents to AIDS “are coming out of the darkness,” she notes. “There is so much unresolved pain, so much heartbreaking pain.”
Abbott was an only child, raised in San Francisco by her father after his wife died in a car accident when Alysia was a toddler. (He had told her mother that he was bisexual.) As a teenager, she was embarrassed to have an openly gay father: “Even though my father was out, it didn’t mean I was out about him.” Of course, teenagers can be embarrassed by anything, and in the 1980s, a gay parent could still seem a “Birdcage”-like anomaly.
But with the site, “I feel like I’m honoring his memory,” says Abbott, who’s now 44 and lives in Boston. “It feels good to midwife these stories.”
Soffer was 30 when her mother died in a car accident in 2006. “I’d seen her only an hour before, hugged her goodbye and told her I loved her,” she remembers. Her father died four years later. Soffer refers to herself as an “orphan,” a term she had long associated with “waifish Charles Dickens characters.”
Birkner was 24 when her father and stepmother were killed in a home invasion 10 years ago. “A lot of what people said in the aftermath was very clinical or very religious or very saccharine,” she recalls.
Both women tried the usual remedies: support groups, grief counseling, how-to books. But creating a Web site felt inclusive and in keeping with how they communicate and spend their busy lives.
“When you share a story, post a photo, that very moment is very empowering,” says Soffer. By sharing the stories of people who might not otherwise have left much of a presence in the Internet’s information-swollen world, “you are asking the world at large to remember that you lost someone very meaningful to you, that the person lived and is remembered.”