Turning loss from a conversation-stopper into a conversation-starter

The stress of loss
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Story highlights

  • Lennon Flowers lost her mom during her senior year of college
  • Flowers started The Dinner Party, where guests are connected through the shared experience of loss

Lennon Flowers is co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, a community working to change the way we approach life after loss. The opinions expressed are her own.

(CNN)"Can we sit down and look at photos one day? I'd really like to hear about your mom, whenever you're ready for it."

I don't remember most of what was said in the months after my mom died. My memories of my first year out of college are grainy, with stretches that are entirely blank, like a decaying film reel. But Mary's offer, made as we sat in the quad one spring day during my senior year, stuck with me.
Lennon Flowers.
I never took her up on it. At the time, I was afraid that if I went there, I'd never find my way back. Like everyone who's been on the receiving end of "The Pity Face," I hated it, and craved some trace of normalcy. I hated the sensation of carrying a scarlet letter, a label that read, "girl whose mom just died." Mostly, though, I feared the memories were already gone, that I would forever associate the woman who'd raised me in good health for 17 years with the images of the final cancer years, lying in gray flannel pajamas on the couch, her cheeks puffy with steroids.
It would be three-and-a-half years before I was finally ready for that conversation.

Someone to talk to

I'd been living in Los Angeles for a few months when I got Carla's email, inviting me and a handful of people who'd all lost parents over for dinner one night.
By that point, I no longer identified as grieving, at least not in the traditional sense. I'd long since adjusted to a new normal. The memories I'd feared were gone for good had slowly trickled back. I could talk about my mom without fear of instant collapse. The problem was that there was no longer anyone to talk to.
I'd approached grief the way I'd approached every school assignment since the fourth grade: Do your homework. I'd read up on the "Five Stages of Grief," and assumed that when you reach Acceptance, you're done: Grief Grade A.
Lennon Flowers and her mom, Sue.
I had no language to describe the way my mom's life and death had permanently changed me, in ways that were themselves constantly changing. Three thousand miles from home and the friends who'd seen me through the worst days, I feared the deer-in-headlights look on other people's faces with which any casual mention of my mom -- let alone acknowledgment of her death -- would instantly be met.
Carla and I worked together. On a walk back from coffee one day, she mentioned her dad had died six months before. For the first time, loss became a door-opener, rather than an invitation to change the subject. It wasn't a conversation for the office water-cooler, and there was so much more to say than could be stuffed into a coffee run. We needed a container.

'The Dinner Party'

Five of us piled onto Carla's back deck that first night, over a now legendary meal of her dad's paella. We talked until the wee hours, and kept doing it.
Our stories now known to one another, we began to shift from the past tense to present: Less moments of diagnosis, or circumstances of an accident, or idiotic things said in the aftermath, more about our relationships with the living, and the ways in which our priorities had changed, and what it meant to live well after.
Friends heard about it and more friends heard about it. We heard from people who'd lost siblings and friends and partners, and realized we were less alone than we thought. Slowly, one table became two tables and five tables.
We figured out how to create spaces that people actually wanted to be in and how to kick off a conversation, naming what worked and what didn't. We learned to sit with silence, and got comfortable holding light and dark.
In December 2013, we publicly launched "The Dinner Party," opening our doors to anyone anywhere who wanted to sit down with peers with a shared experience, and talk openly about something we normally keep under lock and key.
Since then, we've onboarded more than 140 hosts, and connected more than 1,000 people to nearby tables, turning one-time strangers into friends. Today, there are more than 100 Dinner Party tables in more than 50 cities, ranging from Anchorage, to Dallas, to Sydney.
We've found that an experience that's normally isolating is actually an extraordinary tool for connection: a way to go beneath the surface, and to find meaning and commonality with someone you might not meet otherwise. We've found that everyone has a story, whether they've lost someone themselves, or wondered how to be there for someone who has. We've found people actually do want to talk about loss -- it's just that we rarely know what to say, or have spaces in which to say it.
Mary was the first to show me that conversations about loss didn't have to suck. Fortunately, she wasn't the last.