I was 20 years old when my mother died suddenly. She was 46.
I had been studying abroad in London, and came back to finish the semester at Tufts. Several months later, a friend set me up on a blind date with a close friend of her brother’s. We were barely into the appetizer when he asked a fairly basic question—where did my family live?—and as part of my answer I included the very recent death of my mom. He was shocked. I was equally shocked that my friend hadn’t given him a heads up. Conversation came to a halt and I didn’t hear from him again.
It’s an understatement to say that it’s not easy to talk about death or grief. When the death comes outside the expected “circle of life”—a child, the early or unexpected loss of a spouse or parent, a sibling—it becomes even more apparent that there aren't many places or people that can help a young person cope with the loss, someone who can say, “I know what you're going through and it's awful and painful and at moments it's going to hurt so much you think you can't possibly survive a day without her, let alone 20 years, but you will—because I did.” I remember trying a support group and feeling so lost and angry at the unfairness of it when I was surrounded by men and women much older than me, mourning parents who’d died in their 80s. It felt more isolating than supportive.
Two young women, Carla Fernandez and Lennon Flowers (now 26 and 29) each lost a parent at the age of 21, recognized that cultural absence and, with their nascent organization The Dinner Party, are addressing it.
The two met five years ago at work. After four or five months of casual interaction, they realized they both had lost a young parent to cancer. Their “you, too?” moment led to a small gathering of friends—each of whom had been the first in their peer group to suffer loss—sharing their experience around a dinner table.
This idea—a loose affiliation of friends and newcomers sitting down over a meal and building a support network around the shared experience of loss—seemed to blossom organically. Lennon casually told some DC friends about it and found there was local interest in establishing Dinner Parties. Carla’s San Francisco therapist told her that she knew of at least six people who had expressed a desire for “something like this,” individuals for whom grief counseling wasn’t filling the void. Soon other therapists began recommending the Dinner Parties. (Carla points out that while the Dinner Parties are not a replacement for therapy, it was validating to have professionals endorse their social approach.)
And from there, through word of mouth and people signing up via the website to host and attend Dinner Parties, the organization has grown to more than 30 tables throughout New York City, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Austin, Boulder, Chapel Hill, Toronto, and Los Angeles. Already, demand far exceeds the supply with waitlists for Dinner Parties and Lennon and Carla recently held an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund the next 100 tables (the money goes toward training and supporting hosts, public events, and tool-kits).
Though tissues are present and tears are not uncommon, the Dinner Parties are distinctly not grief counseling or group therapy. It is men and women in their 20s and 30s (currently the makeup tends to skew female) drawn together by a loss that is impossible to wholly understand without having gone through it, finding a place and way to talk about it together.
Each dinner, while uniquely influenced by the host and individual members, follows a similar model: the host chooses a date and finds a location; each guest brings a dish, often something with meaning to them or with an association to their loved one; the evening begins with catching up and cocktails, and then proceeds to dinner. The host reminds guests of the guidelines (be non-judgmental of yourself and others; nobody is, at any point, under pressure to talk; and all conversations are confidential). Then the conversation, facilitated by the host, begins.
The conversations can be about the challenges of holidays, anniversaries, and new family configurations. Does your family even exist anymore? Who do you turn to now when you have a decision to make, when you have one less person to provide validation or advice? How do you celebrate when happy occasions are colored by loss and absence? What do you do when the way you see the world has been changed?
Carla points out how meaningful it can be to have people in your life who simply understand what you're going through. She calls it the “Dinner Party” effect. “You can,” she says, “flash the bat signal when you’re in a tough spot—you have the ability to call people who get it, or to get a glass of wine to celebrate.”
Kyle Dietrich, 36, is a host of one of the DC Dinner Parties. A single father, he had been living abroad and returned when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had been, he says, the backbone of their family and losing her shifted their entire emotional landscape. What was hard, he notes, besides not expecting to deal with death at this point in time, was that most of his family didn’t want to talk about it. Those who come to the Dinner Party are self-selecting; they do want to talk about it.
Eva Silverman, who co-hosts an Oakland Dinner Party, agrees. Now 34, she had always been drawn to people who experienced loss at a young age, she says, because there was a base of understanding. Eva’s mother died of breast cancer when Eva was 10 and her father was killed in a car accident when she was 19; during those nine years she also lost her grandparents. Her ex-girlfriend, Nati, had also lost her father at a young age so when Eva first learned of the Dinner Party, she reached out to Lennon and now she and Nati co-host a table in Oakland.
One topic that comes up among the members, she says, is dealing with loss years later. “How,” she asks, “do you hold their memory while moving forward in your life? How do you create traditions to be with their presence without their being here?”
I would have been grateful had Dinner Parties existed when I lost my mother; I certainly found myself nodding in recognition as Lennon, Carla, Eva and Kyle spoke. And there is definitely something to finding solace in food, familiarity, and memory. Last week I turned 40, a bittersweet occasion because I crossed the line to living longer without my mother than with her. I celebrated with family; my brother cooked my mom’s chicken Parmesan recipe.
It was a very special dinner party.