Dining and Dying: Five Key Lessons on How to Do Both Better

Last week, we invited a group of our favorite hearts and minds — people whose work and words had literally changed our lives — over for dinner. On the menu for the evening: beet and quinoa salad with pomegranates, persimmons, and a maple balsamic reduction, roasted delicata squash with a honey miso glaze, seared beef with porcini mushroom dust, and death. (No, we don’t mean the Colonel Mustard with a candlestick variety.)

In some ways, this wasn’t so different from most of the dinners we do. The food was fancier, courtesy of our chef friend and Dinner Party host (we’ll get to that), Amanda — who’d just moved back to Southern CA after a stint at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. The plates matched — a Dinner Party first. But death and dinner no longer strike us odd bedfellows.

Five years ago, we sat down for dinner on a back-deck in Los Angeles, with zero design in mind other than to talk openly about something we normally, and expertly, avoided. We were all in our early 20s, and each of us had lost a parent: For some, it had been years, for others, a few months. We talked about the ways in which the experience had left us changed, and the struggles to which our peers could not relate, and the people we’d lost and the families and fragments of families they’d left behind. We talked until the wee hours, and kept doing it.

Since December 2013, we’ve grown from a couple dozen friends to a community of more than 1,000 in 48 cities. Earlier this month, we onboarded our 142nd host, and kicked off our 100th table. For all that’s changed, a lot hasn’t: We’re still a community of mostly of 20- and 30-somethings who’ve lost parents, or siblings, or partners, or best friends, and get together over potlucks to reflect on where we are now.

Over time, something interesting started to happen. We began to hear from people with a wide array of experiences beyond death loss: Women who’d suffered miscarriages, and their partners, too; people who’d lost someone to mental or physical illness, in which the person was still there but the relationship was gone; survivors of childhood abuse, who’d cut off ties with their biological families, and, like so many of the people around our tables, were learning to navigate the world alone.

All of our stories are different. Yet we’ve found that most people arrive with two things in common: A hunger for community, and for people with whom they don’t have to hide a part of themselves and their stories, and a persistent belief that whatever it is that they’re doing, they’re doing it wrong.

We started thinking about why that was true, and why we suck at talking about this stuff, despite the fact that we’ll all live through it. We started thinking about the role of the table in turning our most isolating experiences into sources of connectivity, and the difference between moving forward versus moving on, and what it means to live well after loss. We wondered what it would take to reach 1,000 tables, and what needs to change at a cultural level, and what we could do to help change it.

So we teamed up with Motherless Daughters author Hope Edelman to help us figure out what’s next.

“Culture change” is a thing that can feel amorphous — the stuff of intellectual masturbation, not concrete strategy — until you meet people who’ve had a hand in achieving it.

Before Motherless Daughters, our understanding of grief was limited to the Five Stages: That women could still be affected decades later, let alone be bonded by the experience, was little understood. Hope interviewed hundreds of women of every age — women who’d lost their mothers as kids or teenagers, or never known their moms at all — and gave them a voice, naming the fact that loss isn’t something that you get over, but something that changes you, in ways both small and large.

The room included Karen Moyer, co-founder of The Moyer Foundation, whose signature program, Camp Erin, helped cement the idea that if you want to address child bereavement, you have to create spaces where kids can be kids. It included Jo-Ann Lautman, founder of Our House, LA’s largest grief support center, and Jamie Daves, co-founder of Current TV and Halio Health, whose resume highlights include having led the deployment of broadband to schools, libraries, and health centers at the Federal Communications Commission. Gathered around the table were expert storytellers and creative directors and technologists: People dedicated to spreading messages, inside and outside the healthcare system.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Stop innovating. What we need is a return. Ours is an age obsessed with innovation and all things new: pill regimens to help you live forever and promises of digital immortality. Reality check: People have been dying for a very long time, and that’s not about to change. At risk of waxing nostalgic about an imaginary past, perhaps we did it better when our last breaths weren’t spent plugged into machines.

Too often, we end up suffering in silence, subject to a healthcare system that doesn’t advocate for people, says technologist Sarah Sims, a software developer working to change the way we approach mental healthcare. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.

Dr. Matthew Gonzales is a palliative care doctor and the Associate Medical Director at the Institute of Human Caring at Providence Hospitals. In caring for patients at the end of their lives, the most important thing he does has nothing to do with prescribing medication, he says. “People want to be witnessed.” That’s a role each of us can play, and it doesn’t require a degree to do it.

2. Looking for a generation bridge? Try loss. “Generational segregation is one of the only sources of segregation we still tolerate,” says Jamie Daves. At the table sat men and women whose ages spanned six decades: A rarity, if not an outright first, for all of us. Death and dying is not the purview of the elderly, and grief and loss are not unique to one age group or another. Two million people under the age of 30 lost a parent or sibling in the last two years. Fifty percent of inner-city kids will experience the sudden loss of a family member before they’re 21. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and 10–25% of recognized pregnancies result in miscarriage.

Because loss is universal, it can serve as a unique bridge-builder across lines of difference: A way to peer beneath the stereotypes and to combat our tendencies to “other” one another, and to invite open and honest conversation about the things that matter most. Let’s talk.

3. It’s time we out ourselves. Darryle Pollack was 18 when she lost her mom to breast cancer. Her mom had been sick for six years, and no one ever told her the reason. For decades, cancer was mentioned only in hushed tones, if at all: It was a thing you hid. Compare that to today’s warrior culture, when cancer patients document the experience in real-time and share it with legions of followers, and cancer patients and survivors join celebrities and companies to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in research funds.

Too often, grief produces those same hushed tones. Members of the club stay hidden from one another, locked in a mutual conspiracy of silence. We need a pink ribbon: A means of acknowledging each other and sharing our stories, in a way that’s empowering, not pity-inducing.

But it doesn’t end there: It’s time to bring back villages, says enso co-founder Sebastian Buck. That we are both more connected than ever and more isolated is one of the great paradoxes of the modern age. Sebastian grew up in a tiny village in Southern England, but the kind he’s talking about isn’t physical. The question, he says, is how to help people find each other online, so that they connect over meaningful experiences offline.

4. Our relationship to death changes how we choose to live. “For awhile, I had a really good relationship with death,” says Ben Goldhirsh, co-founder of GOOD and Chairman of The Goldhirsh Foundation. Ben was 18 when his mom died, and 21 when his dad died of brain cancer. The experience, he says, was not just a sad one, though it was that too, of course. It was also opening, filled with intensely beautiful moments: An experience that changed his priorities, and forced him to get comfortable with his own limited time on earth. The challenge, he says, is how to hold on to that, without getting swallowed up by all the logistics that come with death, and how to stay connected outside of occasional returns to the cemetery.

“Everything we love, we’ll eventually lose,” says Julia Barry. Julia is the daughter of the late Laura Ziskin, a renowned film producer and one of the co-founders of Stand Up to Cancer. She is now pursuing her Marriage and Family Therapy license. The truth, of course, is that loss is every moment: That we can recognize that, and choose to go all in in spite of it, may seem like a contradiction. After all, the decision to live and to love fully is to knowingly put our finger in the socket. The key, says Julia, is not to “get over” grief, but to integrate it.

“Loss is a soul-making experience,” adds Kelly Carlin, author of A Carlin Home Companion. “It helped me figure out what the fuck I’m doing here.”

5. Start with dinner. Tembi Locke was a kitchen widow before she became The Kitchen Widow. Used to describe the wives of chefs, the term took on a whole new meaning when her husband and partner of 20 years, a Sicilian chef, died of cancer. “When he died,” she says, “I did what I’d always done: I went back to the table.” She launched a web series. In each episode, she cooks up her husband’s recipes, and invites friends over to talk openly about caregiving and grief.

Our most important conversations happen around dinner tables. It’s a fact so basic as to seem not worth mentioning, until you realize it’s one we often forget, or fail to capitalize on. We separate work from the table, conversing with our colleagues over meetings, rather than meals. We bury our heads in our phones, replacing conversation with the clicks of a keypad. We deem our most vulnerable thoughts and experiences “not appropriate dinner table conversation.” Bullshit. Got something important to say? Grab a fork.

Thanks to our host, Ben Goldhirsh, and our attendees for the evening:

Ben Goldhirsh, GOOD + Goldhirsh Foundation

Hope Edelman, Author, Motherless Daughters

Ashley Areyan, Institute for Human Caring

Julia Barry, MFT Intern

Sebastian Buck, enso

Kelly Carlin, Author, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George

Jamie Daves, Halio Health

Matthew Gonzales, MD, Institute for Human Caring

Jo-Ann Lautman, Our House Grief Support Center

Tembi Locke, The Kitchen Widow

Karen Moyer, The Moyer Foundation

Darryle Pollack, Blogger + WHOA Network

Sarah Sims, Halio Health

Melissa Zimmerman, Healthcare Innovation

Carla Fernandez, The Dinner Party

Lennon Flowers, The Dinner Party