Helping Make Grieving Less Lonely - An Interview with Encircle Founder Ben WeinbergSep 14, 2022
Interview by Yahdav & Hanlon / Interviewee Ben Weinberg
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Encircle* Founder, Ben Weinberg. What started off as a connection call for us to answer questions about grief, turned into a wonderful conversation about the power of community, storytelling, and grief support. We were able to share stories of our departed loved ones and reminisce on memories from what feels like a prior lifetime.
As grief specialists, one of the biggest ways that we see grievers get stuck in their grief is out of fear of ‘forgetting’ their person. They can get caught in a spiral of repeating the same story over and over and clinging to it for dear life. With Encircle, it can help grievers capture their memories in one place. Not that we could ever ‘forget’ our loved ones, but having the stories written down and in one place is a huge gift to grievers.
As moms, with the desire that our children know their deceased relatives, we are especially excited about Encircle and what it can offer. The prompts are super helpful to help elicit memories. And the platform allows the griever to remember their person in the community, thus breaking the isolation commonly felt by grievers.
We’re so excited about Encircle and want to share our interview with Ben so that you can read his responses in his own words!
Yahdav & Hanlon (Y&H): We love the story of how you started Encircle (formerly Momento*). Please share your story and inspiration.
Ben: In April of 2021, my best friend’s dad died unexpectedly. When I got the call, I drove up to be with him and his family. I was struck that the first thing his family asked from their community was for them to share stories while they were still fresh. Many people sent flowers or food, but fewer actually sent the stories that would have been the most meaningful gift of all.
As I started to learn more about grief so I could support this person who is like a brother to me, I started to hear the same story over and over again from others who had experienced a close loss: “Lots of people show up for the funeral but slowly and surely they start to fade away. They stop checking in, inviting you to things, and asking questions about the person who died.” I realized that it wasn’t that these people didn’t care - rather nobody taught them how to support a grieving friend or family member. These were the same people who didn’t share stories because to do so would also mean bringing up the loss, which so many people aren’t comfortable with.
These insights ended up inspiring me to build something that would make grieving feel less isolating - my mission at Encircle.
Y&H: Before your best friend’s father’s death, how has grief shown up in your life?
Ben: I haven’t experienced any significant grief in my life, which in some ways has allowed me to show up in this space with curiosity and a beginner’s mind. I’ve been incredibly grateful to have so many people share their grief experiences with me and listen to what they’ve found helpful and harmful in their grief journeys. These conversations have been integral to creating an approachable product that helps grievers build the habit of talking about the person who died while also reminding their community to continue reaching out long after the funeral is over.
Y&H: During one of our first conversations, you mentioned all the research that you have done on how to support a grieving person. How do you think that has affected you and how you relate to people personally? Professionally?
Ben: Understanding how healing it can be for someone who’s grieving to feel seen and given the space to express their grief has totally changed how I approach so many of my relationships, both professionally and personally. This boils down to two main buckets: following up and creating space.
After hearing so many people tell the same story of their close friends and colleagues who stop recognizing their grief after a few short months, it's made me much more cognizant to check in on grieving friends and remember the dates that are important to them like death anniversaries and birthdays. These are core features of Encircle - to help nudge a person's community to continue reaching out so support doesn't drop off.
When it comes to creating space, I've been so surprised at how vulnerable people are willing to be when you give them the opportunity. Just by telling people what I'm building with Encircle, I've had so many folks open up to me about those they've lost (this didn't happen before, I swear). Especially with professional relationships, it's reminded me that at the end of the day business is about working with people. It's made so many of these connections stronger just by taking the time to ask about the person they lost and creating that space for healing. This is exactly what Encircle is built to foster, so it's been gratifying to create the change I hope to see even before the product launches.
Y&H: What is something you learned about grief that was totally shocking to you? What is something about grief that you wish you knew previously that you know now?
Ben: Since I started Encircle, I’ve started every conversation by asking people to tell me a bit about the person (or people) they grieve. The power of telling these stories constantly amazes me. Almost everyone starts talking and gets the same look in their eye. For many, it’s the first time they’ve gotten to talk about their person in a long time.
I remember the first time someone answering this question began to cry. Immediately I was worried that I did something wrong. I was shocked when after a few minutes they kept talking and were totally back to normal, and even started laughing as they recalled a funny memory of the person. I realized later that I didn’t cause them to cry - those feelings were already there. I just gave them the space to express what was being held in. It helped me understand that grief can be a wide range of emotions, not just sadness. This insight directly informed Encircle's use of a storytelling framework to help create moments like this for many more people.
Y&H: What community and individual needs do you feel that Encircle is satisfying? What gap in support are you striving to fill?
Ben: Encircle has two core groups of users. On one hand, there are people who feel isolated by their grief. They feel like they can't talk about the person they lost (or what they're feeling) with their friends and family as much as they'd like.
On the other hand, there are people who are close to the griever but may not be as affected by the loss. They want to show up for their friend but aren't sure what to do or say. They may or may not have known the person who died.
For the grievers, Encircle gives them an encouraging space to share stories about the person who died, their relationship to them, and their reflections on their loss. It's meant to build a healthy habit of reflection and talking about their person after death. This could be a great resource for people who aren't ready for grief groups or 1:1 coaching but are looking for something more approachable. I think it would also be great for people who are already seeking out those resources but want something that can help them discuss these topics with others, outside of those closed doors.
For the broader community, Encircle gives them the guidance and confidence to say something. It takes the guesswork out of supporting a grieving friend. If they did know the person who died, this could mean sharing their own stories. But even if they didn't, Encircle will nudge them to reach out on a regular basis and give them ideas of what they could say.
Y&H: What are some different ways people can utilize Encircle? Who can sign up and can contribute?
Ben: There are three main groups of people who will use Encircle, roughly translating to the concentric circles of grief.
- In the center, you have those who were closest to the person who died. They can share stories, comment on memories, and even sign up for weekly reflection questions where Encircle will send them a question about the person directly to their inbox (e.g. What is one place you feel especially close to your person?). Their response to the email automatically goes back into the Encircle.
- The next group is those who knew the person but may have not been as close to them as the immediate family or best friends. These people can be invited to share their own memories of the person and share the link with others in their circles who have memories to give but may not actually know anyone in the first group.
- The last group is the outer circle of friends who know the people in the first group but may have not known the person who died. These people want to support their friends but may not have memories to offer up. This group can sign up to receive nudges via text that reminds them to reach out to their grieving friends on a regular basis, long after the funeral. More importantly, the messages give them examples of what to say so they have more confidence when providing support.
Y&H: What feature(s) of Encircle most excite you?
Ben: Having seen first-hand how powerful an experience it can be when someone is prompted to reflect on their relationships with a deceased loved one, I'm pretty stoked to see the impact of the Reflection Prompts. Especially when multiple members of a family are using them! When multiple people get the same question, answer it, and then can see each other's answers, it prompts real-life conversation about the person who died and normalizes talking about them. This is what Encircle is all about.
Y&H: What is some feedback you have received from potential users, partners, and other influencers?
Ben: I'm always looking for feedback! Initially, the idea for Encircle was centered around keeping someone's memory alive - similar to a lot of memorial pages that currently exist. It was from initial feedback and hearing the stories of folks feeling isolated in their grief that I realized there was a much deeper pain point. I went back to the drawing board and redesigned a product that still used a framework of storytelling but was much more centered around the grieving experience. Yes, we tell stories to honor those we've lost. And we also tell stories to heal ourselves and those around us.
Y&H: If you could tell your users and potential users one thing, what would it be?
I'd love to tell them two things!
- First - try this out with your family. Encircle is meant to help you come together around these memories. Having that core group really elevates the power of this tool.
- Second - I love feedback! The mission of Encircle is to make grieving less lonely. Tell me what you love, hate, or think is missing. My goal is to make something that's as useful for you as possible. The only way I can do that is by listening to what you have to say.
Y&H: What is the best way for people to contact you to give you feedback?
Ben: If folks have any feedback, they can reach out to me at [email protected].
Y&H: How do you foresee Encircle helping the grieving community?
Ben: It's been really amazing to see the growth of the death-positive movement over the past few years. So many more people are having these conversations than ever before.
I think Encircle will be an important part of this drive to further destigmatize talking about grief and death. When people share stories on a person's Encircle profile and respond to reflection prompts it will help them build the habit of talking about their person and their grief.
When their community continues to check in in the months and years after their loss because of nudges from Encircle, we will have helped our users feel seen in their grief and more connected to their communities.
Y&H: How do you envision Encircle evolving and growing over time?
Ben: At first, Encircle will be for existing communities to grieve together. My hope is that it's approachable even for those who wouldn't seek out traditional grieving resources.
Eventually, I see Encircle connecting existing users to more high-touch resources - making it easy to connect with others who have experienced a similar type of loss, for example, or making it easier to connect with grief counselors and coaches (like Y&H!).
Y&H: How has your watching Encircle take form influenced your understanding of grief and grievers?
Ben: It's been eye-opening to see the breadth of grief experiences. And how grieving is a life-long journey! It's an honor to give people a platform to express themselves and feel seen in their grief journey.
Y&H: What is the best way for people to sign up?
Ben: I’m stoked to share that the beta is live! As you’re part of the Y&H community, I wanted to offer early access. Simply complete the brief onboarding survey and you can start trying it out. Visit https://www.encirclegrief.com/getting-support to get started!
Y&H: Share a fun fact about yourself that no one knows.
Ben: I'm a big gardening nerd. I have two aquaponics beds in my yard with ~20 fish where I grow lots of herbs and vegetables (and even fruit trees!). I've been getting pretty excited about permaculture and agroforestry as of late!
We hope that you enjoyed learning more about Ben and Momento. We’re so excited about it and hope you are too!
More About Ben Weinberg
Ben is the founder of Encircle, a software product that helps make grief less lonely through storytelling. Ben has spent his career in technology startups, is an organizer in the death technology community, and is a member of the Inter-Island Chevra Kadisha on Oahu, Hawai'i. When Ben isn't building Encircle, you can find him surfing, playing guitar, or planting food crops in his garden.Website: https://www.encirclegrief.com/
*Blog update, 11/06/2022: We have updated the blog to reflect that what started as "Momento" is now "Encircle". Here is a note from Ben regarding the company name change:
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