A group of friends gather around the dining room table, but this is no ordinary dinner party.
Everyone here knows what it is like to lose someone significant in their life – and they aren’t afraid to talk about it.
This is The Dinner Party, a pot-luck supper club with a difference. Here, millennials are breaking the uncomfortable silence they often encounter when they grieve.
Founded by Lennon Flowers and Carla Fernandez in 2010, The Dinner Party has become a worldwide social movement and safe space for guests in their twenties and thirties to open up about their loss – and talk about what it’s like to grieve.
In Australia, the first Dinner Party suppers are happening in Perth, with homegrown death-positive movements including Dying to Know Day and Grief Awareness Month signalling that more and more Australians are becoming open to frank conversations about grief.
Picture:Dave Lastovskiy on Unsplash
People who are bereaved in the early years of adulthood can find themselves in a difficult place. At a time when they are adapting to an unfamiliar new life stage of independence, self-reliance and generally puzzling out adulthood, they may also feel pressured to ‘keep up appearances’ in the workplace or among new social groups.
Sharing stories with friends and new acquaintances who’ve also been bereaved, is an opportunity to be candid about what hurts, what’s bewildering – and the surprising things that can even make us laugh.
“I think it’s so easy to see stories of grief or loss as being a downer,” says co-founder Carla, who lost her 54-year-old father Jose to brain cancer, when she was just 22.
“You just don’t want to burden other people with that part of your story.”
A few months after her dad’s death, Carla started a new job in Los Angeles. In a new environment, she found herself holding back about her bereavement.
“I found myself hesitating from sharing my story with the people that I was meeting,” she explains. “I didn’t want to come across as having baggage or being heavy.”
Grief: Let’s talk about it
It was only when struck up a friendship with co-worker Lennon Flowers that things started to change, and Carla confided in Lennon that her dad had died.
“I admitted to Lennon that this was something that had recently happened,” Carla explains.
“Her response was ‘me too’ – and she told me that her mum had died of cancer a few years before.”
Lennon’s mum Sue, a photographer, had died of lung cancer aged 53.
“After that, we thought we should create a space to actually talk about this and swap stories,” says Carla.
“I invited Lennon to dinner, along with a couple of other people that I had connected with. It was such a mix, from a former schoolmate to someone I met at a party.”
Top left, Carla Fernandez now, and in childhood with her dad. Below, left: Lennon Flowers now, and in childhood with her mom. Pictures: thedinnerparty.org/ Stefan Johnson on Unsplash
This was the first Dinner Party, with the guest-list especially curated with candid conversation in mind.
“It felt like a social experiment,” says Carla.
“I wasn’t sure if people would show up in the first place. But everyone did – and it was so amazing.
“There was sadness and tears but there was also such laughter and appreciation of the dark humour and absurdity of all of this.
“By the end of the night we all said, ‘let’s do this again’ – and we did.”
Before long, the word had got out about The Dinner Party, with Carla and Lennon inundated with requests to host another supper with grief chat on the cards.
“We were like ‘what?!’” Carla says. “We all thought we were so alone – and so weird – for wanting to do this.
“But in reality, it’s not that people don’t want to have the conversation – they very much do. They just hadn’t had the place, the invitation or the environment where it felt right.”
A safe space for frank conversation
Creating the right environment for conversation was at the heart of Sydney artist Stefan Hunt’s philosophy, when he curated Australia’s first We’re All Going to Die festival in November 2017.
Billed as an arts and music ‘amusement park for the soul,’ the death-positive fiesta also aimed to help alleviate the day-to-day anxieties that millennials can experience in adjusting to adulthood, its pressures and perceived expectations.
“The moment you realise that you’re not the only one living with fears is the moment it all changes,” he said.
With a kindred philosophy to the Death Cafe movement, The Dinner Party’s focus is to provide people in their twenties and thirties the opportunity to talk candidly about grief – an emotional journey that many of their peers may have yet to go through.
Picture: Jasmin Schreiber on Unsplash
With the support of friends and new acquaintances made over home-made food and good wine, the supper clubs are helping young adults to share their grief and feel supported.
Today The Dinner Party has tables all over the world, and would-be guests can apply to the team for an invitation to attend – or host – a supper.
Each event is sculpted around how they feel the mix of people they’ve picked will gel, as well as contribute to the evening’s table talk.
A new circle of friends
“We ask in our submission form not just what brings you to the table, but how old you are, what neighbourhood you live in and what you like to do on the weekends,” Carla explains.
“Our team literally hand matches every single person to a table. What we’re looking to do is create circles of friends, so we’re looking for similarities that are going to create what we call a ‘stickiness’ within a table.
“That’s the thing that actually gets them coming back over time,” says Carla. “The relationships that they make in the room.”
Picture: Kelsey Chance on Unsplash
The Dinner party has big plans for the future too, as they hope to get more and more people together to talk about grief and loss.
“We want to change the cultural conversation surrounding death and loss and invite more people to talk about this part of their life. We also want to debunk some of the myths around grief that stop people from talking about it.”
“When you’re going through grief, sometimes you feel like you’re alone, or you feel like you’re doing it wrong,” reflects Carla.
“Our work isn’t about stopping grief or fixing grief – I don’t think that’s actually possible. It’s about fixing the isolation that comes with it.”
- Visit thedinnerparty.org to find a supper happening where you live, or to for advice and support to host your own Dinner Party.