Potlucks with purpose: Why millennials are turning to Dinner Parties to talk about grief

After her mom died from cancer, Lennon Flowers got really good at compartmentalizing her grief. But then she found herself at a dinner party with other young people who’d suffered loss. It sparked an idea, that quickly became a movement.
Lennon Flowers was looking for a place to talk about life after the loss of her mother. Then dinner was served. (Justin Thongsavanh)

You could say it started with paella.

Three years after losing her mother to lung cancer, Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, relocated to Los Angeles. She was looking to make new friends, but found it difficult to connect with others.

"My life had all of these landmines," Flowers said, particularly the death of her mother.

She would think, "Oh god, please don't ask what my parents do, or anything beyond the physical city and place that I'm from, because it's complicated."

"There was this fear that your life is too much for somebody to see."

Most 20- and 30-somethings Flowers knew had never experienced, let alone talked about. So she'd learned to avoid it.

Lennon Flowers is co-founder and Executive Director of The Dinner Party. (Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)

"I'd become a professional at compartmentalizing," Flowers said. "Keeping one part of my life very clean of all things cancer and caregiving, and trying my darndest to be a normal college student."

She befriended a colleague in L.A. and one day, on the way back from grabbing a coffee, the woman confided to Flowers that she'd recently lost her father to brain cancer.

"Suddenly, for the first time, I wanted to have a conversation," Flowers said.

"That was the beginning point of something, rather than the end point."

'There was a beauty to it'

Soon, Flowers found herself in the woman's kitchen, stirring a pot of paella and having dinner with a group of women who'd also lost a parent. 

"We arrived in her very shambly group house and had what was one of the most profound conversations that I'd ever experienced," Flowers said.

The woman was second-generation Spanish-American and she started the dinner conversation by telling the family story behind the dish.

"We could start the conversation around food and around the living beings that the people we had lost had been, before going into all of the unusual volume of 'hard' that was also present in our lives," Flowers said.

Potlucks with purpose

From there, The Dinner Party was born.

It's a community of young adults who have lost someone dear to them, be it a parent, partner, sibling or friend.

Guests relax at a dinner party. (Justin Thongsavanh)

Just like Flowers' experience at that original paella supper, the Dinner Party offers an opportunity to gather around a potluck-style meal and open up about their grief.

"Not only the loss itself," Flowers said, "but much more importantly, where does that leave you now."

Since launching in January 2014, the community has spread to more than 100 cities and towns across the world.

And you don't have to worry if cooking isn't your thing.

Flowers knows we can't all be Ina Garten. She said dinner parties don't have to devolve into perfect, Instagram-worthy meals. In fact, she's seen successful parties where the meals were nothing but brownies or asparagus. 

What matters most, she said, is the opportunity to gather for a meal — something that's familiar to us all — with people who understand loss.

It's something that often inspires hope, Flowers added.

She pointed, for instance, to a woman who credited her ability to get engaged — and expose herself to all the risks that come with falling in love — to her Dinner Party community.

"That's what we want to see," Flowers said. "People who suddenly see that they have a future when that future had grown real dim."


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