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The Dinner Party: Changing How We Approach Life After Loss The Dinner Party: Changing How We Approach Life After Loss

The Dinner Party: Changing How We Approach Life After Loss

by Carla Fernandez

December 15, 2013

I inherited a love of family meals from my dad, José. He worked in the wine industry, and thus was constantly traveling between different winemaking and wine-loving regions around the world. In the midst of his busy schedule and his childrens’ school calendars, taking the time to walk to the market, to chop and stir while catching up, to set a table and sit down together, became a ritual that guaranteed conversation, connection, and nourishment.

The focus on food has been a part of my family since their first days in the States. After immigrating from Spain, my grandparents opened up the Fernandez Family Luncheonette in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At that counter, my dad had some of his first meetings with people of different backgrounds—people whose very different stories and worldviews converged around the same plates of bacon and eggs. It was that counter that put bread on the family table: the place where Fernandez lore was passed from generation to generation, where I learned about the childhood antics of the adults in the room, and where I formed and practiced articulating my views of the world.

And it was at this family table five years ago that we learned my dad had brain cancer. During his illness, we came together over meals first to talk about beating it, and later, when that looked unlikely, to savor every last drop of each other’s company.

After my dad passed away, I reflected on the wild ride of cancer, hospice, death, and grief. I started to think how this experience could be designed a little better for my friends and others who would some day have their own experience with loss. I wanted a space where I could talk not just about the sad side of my father’s passing, but about how much death was teaching me about living a better life. A space where I wouldn’t get the deer-in-the-headlights look when I brought up the fact that my dad had died. A space where it wouldn’t take hours of small talk to break through a barrier and realize I shared this formative experience with another.

So I did what my family has been doing from before I can remember and cooked dinner. I invited five people to talk candidly about their life after loss and break bread on my Los Angeles back deck. All it took was a big pot of paella and a toast to my dad, and our conversation was off to the races, sharing sides of our stories that rarely saw the light of day. We laughed and cried, and talked about how this experience continued to influence our lives – our work, our relationships, our dreams for the future, in challenging ways and surprisingly positive ways. What started as a social experiment ended with a resounding question: “When’s our next dinner?”

Three years later, that table still convenes. And through word of mouth, other Dinner Party tables have formed outside of Los Angeles in New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Dinners bring people together of all ages, backgrounds, and professions, who’ve experienced significant loss in many different forms—people who’ve lost parents, siblings, or partners, 16 years, six years, or six months ago. We’ve had dinners in parks and backyards, in pop-up shops, and tiny apartment kitchens.

And what we’re learning is that death is indeed a great equalizer. All it takes is lighting a few candles, uncorking a bottle of wine, and introducing the elephant in the room.

Our conversations aren’t so much about the people we’ve lost, but about what happens to those who are left behind: when the fog of grief fades, and you’re left with an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table, permanently altered for ways good and bad. We’ve found the stories that brought us to the table (“dad, brain cancer, four years ago”) are simply the door opener: we talk about new boyfriends and new girlfriends and when to “break the news,” about work and seeking validation when there’s no longer someone there to cheer us on, about unexpected triggers and triumphs.

We’re working to bring together a new cohort of women and men practiced in the art of hosting. We’ve turned our attention to growing our community of hosts, and we’re issuing an invitation to anyone anywhere who wants to get involved to shoot us an email at info@thedinnerparty.org. We’ve found that while no two stories are ever the same, there’s a lot we can learn from one another in answer to the basic question, “how do we live better?” So we’re collecting and sharing resources on navigating life after loss, and aim to generate a broader dialogue among those who have yet to undergo the experience.

We want to realize a day in which anyone anywhere who loses someone they love can join a Dinner Party in their area, or with the help of tools and a growing peer community, start a table of their own.

Care to join? Support The Dinner Party by joining us at thedinnerparty.org, or get in touch.

Together, let’s do dinner.

This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

food death community psychology cancer community building relationships crowdfunding push-for-good foodonomics grief dinner parties grieving
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