There are few experiences that involve complete strangers that really pique my interest.
I try to employ the occasional friendly chitchat—at coffee shops, the library, or waiting in line somewhere—but I’ve never been great at it. It’s just the way it is. I’m someone who takes time to warm up to others, and never have I minded if they take the same approach with me.
So when my Uber driver asks me where I am going on this particular evening, likely prompted by the aroma of the just-from-the-oven tomato tart held in my hands, I am surprised to hear the enthusiasm in my own voice as I say, “I’m going to a dinner party with complete strangers, but we all have dead parents in common!”
As weird as it sounds, it is true. I don’t know any of the other guests, nor do I even know whose house it is that the Uber is currently taking me to. The only common thread between us is that we all share a dead parent. The gathering was through an organization called The Dinner Party, which connects nearby 20- and 30-somethings over dinner for candid conversations about grief and the loss of a parent.
Luckily my Uber driver, whom I now know as William, is 86, and by this stage of his life seemingly isn’t caught off guard by much, including my irrational excitement for talking about dead people. But William is the exception, not the rule.
Turns out, most people are horrified when you tell them your parent is dead, especially when you still look young enough to routinely get ID’d.
“But you’re so young!”
“That’s so sad!”
“That is terrible!”
Yes, I know—I am young, it is sad, and it most certainly is terrible.
What is also terrible is the crippling isolation that follows the death of a parent. When your peers have no idea how to help or relate because your experiences are suddenly on different wavelengths. Friends stop calling because they aren’t sure how to act around you. The constant pity and perpetual sad looks from others also start to settle in.
To be clear, I’m not upset with these people by any means-death is a scary thing to talk about. Our culture isn’t historically great at handling death; there is no special rulebook any of us receive. A wrongful stigma and silence seem to permeate death, and most people do feel downright uncomfortable talking about it.
Not William though. William takes it in stride. He tells me he is widowed, most of his friends are dead by now, and that’s why he drives Uber. Occasionally feeling lonely, he just wants to have conversations. As he continues to drive, we talk about loved ones we’ve lost, funerals we’ve attended, the surprising amount of paperwork that follows a death. Despite the 50 odd years between us, it feels like we are kindred spirits. The conversation is easy, rising and falling, the silence peppered by moments of his Steve Tyrell CD playing low in the background.
“My mom was undergoing treatment for cancer,” I had told William—and then later, The Dinner Party guests— “but then she was hit by a drunk driver.”
“So, what happened after?” asked The Dinner Party guests.
I tell those gathered around the table that it became a long, drawn-out nightmare between court dates and lawyer meetings, most of which I tried to ignore was even happening. I tell my dinner partiers other things that I have never told anyone else, with many sympathetic nods and verbal agreements.
I share that I certainly drank too much and too often after I lost my mom. I stayed up late, rarely slept. I share with them a strange tendency that I had developed at the time, one in which where I would meet new people and never tell them once what was currently going on in my life. Pretending everything was A-OK, all was grand and normal.
The last part, albeit, feels a bit psychopathic now, but there are only so many times a grieving person can handle the *head-tilt* so…how are you really doing song and dance. I learn another dinner party guest managed to keep her mother’s death a secret from her office coworkers for over six months. I no longer feel so strange.
The entire dinner party goes on to share their experiences, some more than others. We talk about books and films, songs and places; anything that held special meaning for us or helped us through those darker days. We express how life feels segmented into before and after; we talk about how holidays are strange, and families have become more complex than before.
It was a chance to listen and a chance to be heard. The type of conversation where most people will shy away from—yet these people dive right in. For me, it is seemingly the only way to truly connect to what is now lost in my life.
The point of The Dinner Party isn’t meant to compare personal stories or wage a war of who has a monopoly on grief. It’s just a reminder that when you feel terribly alone and certain that nobody will ever understand how you’re feeling, there are people out there who do actually get it. It could be a stranger you haven’t yet met, in line at the coffee shop. A group of dinner guests. Or an 86-year-old Uber driver. The conversation just needs to start somewhere.
If I learned anything from this night, it is that my experience isn’t unique. That is not to say it lessens the impact of my grief, or the love I held for my mother. But the experience does highlight for me that there are others dealing with a similar experience, and probably doing so alone and unbeknownst to the rest us. Conversations around death need to be had, if not for our own mental health, but to remind others who feel achingly alone that they aren’t so alone after all.
This entire experience leads me to take a vow: to talk openly and candidly about death moving forward, because we never know who around us needs the conversation and the connection.
It’s easy to stay in our own worlds and not share personal things or even engage in small talk with others, but it’s infinitely more meaningful to be open to what may need to be said and heard from others.
Earlier in the night when I had parted ways with William, I was sliding out of the backseat when he caught my eye in his rearview mirror. Something in his expression caused me to pause, and after a moment, he said, “Enjoy your dinner party. For both yourself…and for me.”
And I most certainly did.