Helping millennials cope with loss

Publish Date:: 
Monday, October 24, 2016 - 8:45pm

On October 19, a small group of people gathered to share a meal at Gardener Ranch in Carmel Valley and talk about life after the loss at The Dinner Party. 

The Dinner Party is an organization that creates a space for grieving millennials to connect with each other over a shared meal. The goal of The Dinner Party is “to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement" (from www.thedinnerparty.org).

The event was made possible by a grant from Hospice Giving Foundation.

Following is an interview with Lennon Flowers and Carla Fernandez, co-founders of The Dinner Party.

So how  did you get involved in The Dinner Party?

The Dinner Party started by accident. We’d both just moved to LA, and joined the same start-up within a couple of weeks of one another. We were looking for the same thing everyone looks for when you’re new to a place: Friends.

But we were also acutely aware of needing to hide certain parts of our stories. Carla had lost her dad to brain cancer six months before, and Lennon lost her mom to lung cancer while in college. We feared scaring people away if we happened to casually drop that we’d lost a parent, let alone mention the many ways that experience continued to shape us.

It took us a few months to even discover we had that in common, and it was immediately this huge source of relief to have someone else to talk about all this stuff with. The problem was that it’s not the sort of thing you want to bring up around the office water cooler; we needed some kind of container. So Carla invited a handful of people who’d all lost parents over for dinner one night. We talked until the wee hours, and all of us became real friends. The rest, so they say, is history.

How long ago was that?

That first dinner happened in the Fall of 2010. As we became more comfortable with our stories, more friends heard about it, and their friends heard about it, and we began to realize that our story was more of a shared story than we thought it was.

Sounds like there was a serious need for something like The Dinner Party. How did you move forward from here? 

At the end of 2013, with the help of an Indiegogo campaign, we opened our doors to anyone anywhere looking for a seat. Since then, we’ve grown from five tables to 225 in 92 cities, and from a few dozen friends and friends-of-friends to a community of more than 3,000, powered by nearly 300 hosts.

That's amazing! Seems like The Dinner Party has grown very quickly. Why do you think something like this is important? What's the benefit to grieving millennials?

First and foremost, it’s about normalizing an experience that all of us live through in some form, and that nevertheless leaves many of us feeling alone. It can be such a relief to name what you’ve been afraid to say out loud, and to see someone’s head nod across the table. We find even the simple act of naming something can relinquish its hold over us.  

Our work is really about turning sources of isolation into sources of connection. We want to grow new communities of friends---the kind who can celebrate your best days, and with whom you’re not afraid to share your worst. We’ve found that choosing to cut through the superficial and go deep is actually an amazing way to create really meaningful relationships.

And finally, for a lot of people, it allows what has only ever been a source of damage and pain and brokenness, to be a source of something positive, too. That’s not at all to say that the pain goes away, or to suggest that there’s some saccharine rainbow at the end of every tunnel. A mentor of ours, Parker Palmer, talks about learning to hold paradoxes: to recognize that light and dark can and do coexist. We don’t see the contradiction in choosing to live out our best days, without erasing our worst.

The Dinner Party has really impacted a lot of people. Do you have any favorite stories from Dinner Party events?

One of my favorites is from a table in NYC, which started in January. In March, our host there, Hallie, and the seven other people at the table got together for their third dinner. One of the gals announced that she had a little time before starting her new job, and had found a cheap last minute ticket to Costa Rica and asked if anyone wanted to come with. Hallie was going through a break-up at the time and took all of two minutes to say yes. She texted her boss, who gave her the thumbs-up, so she booked a ticket and left the next day. They surfed, did yoga, and relaxed on a beach for a week. Both women have lost both parents, and prior to sitting down together, neither had known anyone else their age in a similar boat. Hallie describes the experience of connecting with others who’d lived through that kind of loss as “like water for the thirsty.” That whole crew still gets together for monthly dinner parties, but also for birthdays and hikes, and they recently filmed a video together. In other words, they’re really good friends.  

What is something you would like to say to someone who just experienced loss? Do you have any advice?
 
For someone processing grief, the biggest thing I can say is to listen to yourself and not advice. We’ve found that all of our stories are different because all of our relationships were different. But however different our experiences may be, most of us believe we’re alone, and that whatever it is we’re doing or feeling, we’re doing or feeling the wrong way,  precisely because we never talk about this stuff. What feels good for one person might not be true for the next.

And the second thing is to know that our relationships to loss never end: there’s no mythic moment when you reach Acceptance and you’re all done. But they do change. We’re interested in moving forward, not on.

Do you have any thoughts on the ways we can help someone who is processing grief?

All of us have experienced we call the “deer in headlights syndrome”: not having a clue what to say or do for someone going through a terrible time, and wondering how to be a better friend. The truth is there are no words, and you can’t fix the unfixable. 

The biggest piece of advice we can offer is simply to stay, rather than running away or trying to change the subject. If it’s recent, suggest activities that don’t require a lot of talking, or simply offer to drop off a meal, or to do their laundry. As time passes, follow their lead, making it clear that you’re there to talk if they want to, without forcing it. And finally, continue to check back in. We like the reminders that people haven’t forgotten. For additional tips, check out our Being There guide.

To learn more about The Dinner Party, visit www.thedinnerparty.org.

 

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