Breaking Bread and Healing Hearts One Dinner Party at a Time

Friday, December 12, 2014 - 5:59am

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.”

Lennon Flowers

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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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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My parents died tragically of a murder/suicide caused by my mothers paranoid delusional disorder. I was 31years old and i clearly remember the people who were able to speak to me were the ones who had gone through such a loss. It was not that i didn't appreciate the concern and love shown by others who had not lived through such a tragedy.I guess i just thought, if others can survive this terrible thing, so can I. This is a wonderful idea.

Love it. Part of that losing a parent young club. Lost my mother at age 19 and just lost my father this year at age 32. You can feel very disconnected from people as most people in your age group have not gone through such a loss and aren't always sure how to handle you. Keep up the good work, Ms. Flowers!

What a gorgeous story. I appreciate being reminded to work close to the "ground" and the people.

At 74years old I recalled vividly the bewilderment about greiving when at 17 my father died leaving my mother to raise 4 kids ages 9-17. There was no time for me to greive. As the oldest I had to become responsible quickly. This is a wonderful project to allow healing long held in hearts. Congratulations

This is wonderful. I work as a volunteer with a grief organization and run groups that aim for exactly this...sharing feelings, knowing that no two griefs are exactly alike and meeting others in order to feel not so all alone.
Brilliant idea!

It is beautiful how when shame is publicly named, it shrivels up and dissapears. Brene Brown (author/ TED speaker) refers to shame as a Gremlin which gains power in the darkness of unacknowledgement.

Thank you for this article! It speaks to the hope for humanity. When we can all sit at the table and share different pieces of our collective life story, there is a great potential for humanity to be healed. When I see that my neighbour's needs ans desires are so similar to mine (even though we all have different strategies to fulfill those needs), I am empathize with them rather than making them the "other".

I lost my dear husband of 32 years in Jan 2013. A man who loved well, who taught me how to love. My 4 adult children are devastated. He was their guide, protector, role model, confidante, and rock. Like you mention in your excellent article, we find all kinds of ways to cope. But finding a safe community is most challenging. I've mentored young women for years and connect more easily with them. Even though I'm in my 50's I have absolutely no desire to sit in a grief share group with a bunch of widows. But the friends 'we' had are no longer mine. Married couples don't hang with widows. The dinner parties are truly excellent ways of creating safe communities to acknowledge and process loss. I'm sending your article and idea on to my young families. They will appreciate your words of experience and loss, and maybe will create our own dinner parties. Thanks so much.

Courtney Martin beautifully captured this portrait of a social change movement. As a trustee of Awesome Without Borders, I'm seeing more and more frank discussions of loss and pain. The Dinner Party is one of our favorites. We also love where people share their personal experiences. The Recollectors is a new group for people whose parent died of AIDS. Jae Rhim Lee and her Decompinaut Society challenge us to reexamine our ways of honoring the body of the deceased in a more organic way. Speaking frankly about these passages of life will help us make progress as a society.

just wonderin where these meetings take place?
breaking bread & healing hearts

To be part of something eexciting takes courage!

Sharing in the depths of loss and simultaneously relishing the gifts of love that can never be lost is a powerful exchange. To share hearts in the vulnerablility of others creates a sense of tribe. I have found nothing more healing as I grieve and stay in current relationship with my soulmate Mom whose leaving has left me changed forever and my brother-in-law who took his own life five months ago leaving devastation and the necessity of everyone we know to reach for each others' hands and love one another through this. As a psychotherapist, I applaud the power of the invitation that the dinner party provides for safety to be authentic and laugh and cry together.

This is wonderful, thank you. My mom was suddenly ill with Cancer when I was 13, and a year later she was gone. It destroyed my family. My dad started dating another woman just a couple months after my mom passed away and they were married within a year of my mother's death. The community was scandalized and pulled away from our family, out of loyalty for our mom. It left my siblings and I very alone. I never talked about what was happening with my 14 year-old friends, and did not expect them to understand or bear the pain with me. I always have a strong connection with any other adult who lost a parent too soon. Thank you for this.