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Breaking Bread and Healing Hearts One Dinner Party at a Time

Lennon Flowers’ mom was diagnosed with lung cancer when she was a senior in high school. This sparkplug of a young woman with a dark, pixie haircut and big, bright eyes abandoned her big dreams to go to NYU and become an actor and instead enrolled at the University of North Carolina so she could be close to home. Though she was surrounded by a community of friends, she rarely brought up her mom. “I became good at not talking about what was happening to me,” she explains. “I got really, really good at being really, really busy.”

When her mother died during her senior year in college, many of Lennon’s friends hadn’t even known she was sick.

In part, she justified her silence with the belief that it protected other people. Who wants to talk about such sad things? We’re ill equipped, as a society. We say stupid things like, “I’m sure she’s in a better place.” (For the record, the worst thing you can say to a kid who has lost a parent, says Lennon.)

In part, she avoided talking about her grief because it actually took a while to hit her. A whole year, in fact. Lennon remembers: “By then, the surge of attention had disappeared. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me for feeling something a year later. It was a deep source of shame.”

Three years after her mother died, Lennon moved to Los Angeles for a boy and a job and, on the first day, met Carla Fernandez. They had an immediate connection. Later, while apartment hunting side-by-side, Carla admitted that her father had died just six months earlier. Lennon shared her own story. A seed was planted.

A couple of months later Carla organized a dinner party for five women, Lennon among them. All of them had lost a parent already though they were only in their 20s; all of them had felt remarkably alone in that loss.

Lennon remembers visceral trepidation walking in, but also the disarming attention to detail that was evident everywhere she looked. The back deck was covered in Christmas lights and candles. Carla had cooked her late father’s signature paella. The wine and the stories just flowed. “Carla is a modern mystic,” Lennon explains. “She’s an extraordinary individual when it comes to creating magical settings.”

What was supposed to be a simple dinner party became a sleepover. They talked until two in the morning — on a Sunday. In fact, they fell asleep curled around one another in Carla’s bed. Lennon was stunned by the experience: “I’d become particularly good at never ‘going there’ and then to not want to leave was such an incredible contrast.”

An emotional movement of sorts was born: The Dinner Party. Today, there are 31 “tables” across the country, and the nascent organization has their hearts set on creating even more.

Many of those who attend don’t identify with the word “grief.” It feels clinical. It feels attached to institutions that most of them have avoided because they seem too formal or prescriptive, too determined to show them the ways in which their grief is just like everybody else’s. Perhaps they think this will make them feel less alone; in fact, it makes them feel misunderstood.

“The number one rule of The Dinner Party is that no two stories are ever the same,” Lennon explains. The potlucks work because they’re organic, idiosyncratic, fun, and built on the foundations of friendship. As people gather month after month, they branch out from talking about their lost loved ones and start exploring what those losses have taught them about the meaning of life, how those legacies live on in their choices about what to do for work and whom to love.

When asked what her mom would think of the work she’s doing now, Lennon pauses and thinks a bit before responding: “My mom was an introvert, a talented photographer, but she was also a fierce lioness, the kind of person who would never stand down from speaking the truth.”

It seems that “real talk” — as Lennon puts it — is her treasured inheritance after all that busy silence.

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