Creating space to eat together and grieve together
Words by Grace Cope
Illustrations by Cassandra Cheng
The loss of a loved one can cause you to find yourself in the loneliest and most isolated of places—and in many cases, talking about your grief results in awkward silences and half-hearted platitudes. This is where The Dinner Party comes in.
An organization dedicated to 20- and 30-year-olds who have experienced the loss of someone close, The Dinner Party gives people a place to talk about life after loss, all while gathered around the dinner table.
The idea came to Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director, while living in California, around three years after her mother passed. While talking with her friend, Carla, she realized others also have similar experiences with loss, but with no outlet to talk and work through their grief. As she organized her very first dinner party for a group of friends who were also working through loss, Lennon had no clue that she was organizing the first of many dinner parties around the world.
“Our interest is turning this source of profound isolation for people into a source of connectivity,” said Lennon. “How do we reframe the sources of our deepest struggles and come to see them as our deepest strengths? Not in a way that denies pain or hurt but that creates a community where people recognize that they’re not undone by it.”
For those who have experienced the debilitation that comes after losing someone close, conversation can help them understand how to process that pain and turn it into something beneficial, something healing. “It’s for people who are longing for communities where grief isn’t treated as a disease. It’s not this thing that’s wrong with you, it’s not a source of heavy silences or elephants in the room,” explained Lennon.
“It’s for people who have a capacity and a desire to live better, because they are quite aware that life isn’t forever. This is a space to talk and openly reflect with a group of people who aren’t afraid of going there, because they’ve been there too.”
Emily Barnhardt has experienced firsthand the power of the dinner parties, and she’s now a host in Charlotte. After losing her best friend and college roommate, she found out about The Dinner Party through a Facebook group. She wound up spontaneously attending a host training retreat in upstate New York. There, she lived in a farmhouse with around 15 strangers, learning how to lead conversations about loss and grief.
“It was the best decision I could have made. We had a dinner party with these other hosts, and I just remember crying through a lot of the dinner, because it was so beautiful. It sounds cheesy, but I had never seen anything like that. It was almost like all of these people whom we have lost were sitting there with us, in a way,” Emily recounted. “It was really powerful and totally sold me that I wanted to be a part of it.”
After becoming a host, she started a table in Charlotte, where she steadily built a recurring group now totaling 10 members. Each month, they have dinner at Emily’s place, where they talk through their grief and form a bond with each other in the process. “Getting to see us being able to hold space for each other, letting someone cry without it being awkward, and knowing that five minutes later we might be laughing about online dating,” said Emily. “It’s very organic, and it feels right.”
Although Emily is the one leading these difficult conversations, she emphasizes that what her table learns, she typically is learning as well. “Before The Dinner Party, my grief was so painful in a damaging way, in an isolating way, and in a wounded way. I felt like I was never going to be whole again,” said Emily. “It gave me space to process my loss, but also the space of others processing their loss. It made me unafraid to use my voice and empowered me to have tough conversations.”
These results are what has made Lennon’s nonprofit successful and life-changing for so many people. Creating a space for people who are hurting and letting them speak about it without fear of others jumping into fix-it mode, is a special and powerful thing.
“As this has grown, the expectation is that as something scales, you lose the quality of the experience for every individual. I think ours has only gotten better as it's grown,” said Lennon.
“So I’m proud of building something that was and is profoundly human.”
Today, The Dinner Party spans the globe, with locations in over 100 cities. But even as The Dinner Party has grown spectacularly, Lennon sticks to the same core values as when it first began––turning what typically is a conversation-stopper into a conversation-starter, and creating space for people in grief.