Lennon Flowers is upsetting the current clinical approach that pathologizes grief with a universal, humanizing model that empowers deeper community and personal growth. Through The Dinner Party, people who’ve lost a loved one are transforming life after loss from a deeply isolating experience and culturally taboo topic to an extraordinary tool for connection and community-building.
The New Idea
Each year, nearly one million young Americans experience the loss of a parent or sibling right at the moment when they are starting careers and families of their own. In a culture where death loss is generally met with discomfort or shrouded in silence, this life-altering event is already deeply destabilizing. But for young people who are among the first in their peer group to lose someone close to them, the situation can be particularly isolating. Friends don’t know how to react, therapy zooms in on overcoming grief, and non-clinical spaces can feel foreign and out-of-touch. Lennon Flowers and The Dinner Party team are building a movement of people who harness the latent value and energy in loss and unlock their own resilience and that of others.
Over the last two years, Lennon and her team have built a global network of more than 290 table hosts and supported more than 3,000 participants around the world, who regularly gather around potluck-style dinners as part of a wider effort to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement. They have been able to take an experience that's normally isolating and repurpose it as an extraordinary tool for connection. With tables in more than 85 cities around the U.S. and around the world, The Dinner Party has been able to bring old ideas into modern parlance and to humanize – rather that pathologize – loss, complementing and even disrupting the antiquated grief “industry” in the process. The Dinner Party proves that people actually do want to talk about loss – it's just that they rarely know what to say, or have spaces in which to say it.
Through her work and a growing network of collaborators, partners, thought-leaders, and media amplifiers, Lennon is showing the power of community and peer relations in solving other problems and has distilled a key set of principles and practical [community-]building blocks. In a culture hungry for meaning and lacking space for deep, soulful conversations, Lennon is working to ensure that her learnings and insights spread beyond The Dinner Party.
Lennon’s mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in her senior year of high school and died during her senior year of college. Though it is estimated that there are as many as two million Americans under the age of 30 who have lost a parent, brother or sister within the past two years, Lennon experienced the death of her mother as a deeply alienating, isolating experience. This, Lennon has come to realize, is unfortunately the norm in a culture that prescribes silence as the salve for sufferers of death loss. And for young adults, loss is an especially taboo subject. When Lennon learned that relatively few in her peer group could relate to her new normal and saw how uncomfortable friends were in hearing about her loss, she – like so many other young people – “learned to hold back and hold in what for many of us has been the most significant event in our lives to date.”
Though a few spaces do exist to talk openly and reflect on loss, according to Lennon “they suffer from the same stigma as loss itself.” Today, “grief support” typically takes place in group settings (picture the circle of chairs in a church basement) or in private counseling sessions divided along patient-therapist lines. The clinical promise that “you will work through your loss” recognizes grief as an affliction and a series of stages to overcome. And the majority of grief support offerings are only available in the immediate aftermath of a death. But, according to grief therapist Mary Anne Cook, “the thing about grief is that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t follow a timeline. The current offerings are incredibly helpful to get you over that first hump, to let you know that you are not going crazy. But how do you incorporate loss as an ongoing feature of your life?” As therapy is designed today, Cook points out, “there is nothing for normal grief” or that normalizes grief. Rather, therapy and grief support pathologize and fixate on raw grief while failing to recognize the deep ways in which a young person’s life has permanently been altered, even years after mourning the initial loss of a loved one.
Furthermore, Lennon insists that “our closeted relationship to grief and loss must be examined against a larger cultural backdrop: one that suggests that pervasive loneliness and isolation is less the exception than it is the rule.” Ours has been called "The Age of Loneliness". Americans in 2016 are technologically more connected than ever before, and simultaneously more isolated. We rely on social media in place of face-to-face contact. Where it was commonplace for families to live within the same town just a generation or two ago, migratory shifts and increased mobility have meant that families are often scattered across hundreds or thousands of miles. More Americans are living alone than ever before, professional relationships are shorter, and, compared to 1 in 10 in 1985, in 2004 one in four Americans reported having no intimate with whom to discuss important matters.
As Lennon puts it, “the problem, then, is also one of missed opportunity. We have allowed one of the few things that so many of us share – regardless of age, or race, or class, or political beliefs – to become a conversation-killer rather than a conversation-starter.”
Lennon believes that “buried beneath our most isolating experiences lie the seeds for rich community, empathy, and meaningful connection.” Through The Dinner Party, Lennon and the team are building and mobilizing a community that is proving that human connection and interdependence is the key to learning how to enhance personal and community wellbeing.
Lennon stumbled upon the first piece of this puzzle almost by accident “when a group of friends and friends-of-friends who had all lost parents started getting together over potluck dinners to talk about experiences [they] normally kept under lock and key.” Not only did they feel the power of ending the isolation that had long defined their life-altering experience of loss, but they unwittingly created an authentic, accessible, non-clinical “container” that people wanted to show up to and where conversation flowed, connections to old ideas and insights across disciplines or faith traditions felt comfortable, and where death loss became a conversation-starter and community-builder. Over time, they began to name what worked and what didn’t and their dinner parties inspired The Dinner Party, “a movement for young people who’ve experienced loss, by young people who’ve experienced loss.”
From the onset their goal was not to personally convene every Dinner Party for everyone in need of one. Nor was it to “resort to formulaic conversation of the same institutional feel that compelled us to create The Dinner Party in the first place.” Therefore, from the beginning, Lennon and her co-founding team distilled the essential ingredients of open, honest, bullshit-free conversation among peers into the free and downloadable online Host Guidebook (including principles like swallow the need to fix, bear witness to pain, and sit with the silence as well as best practices on how to build on the ritual and familiarity of a shared dinner to create safe space for conversations that matter).
But then they learned that most young people don’t know enough people with a similar experience to fill a table. For the millennial demographic experiencing this type of loss, the statistics revealed that their isolation wasn’t just a byproduct of our society’s silent treatment of death loss. Grief cuts across all ages and backgrounds, but the demographics of grief support groups (and of those who’ve lost a partner or an immediate family member) skews older. This, then, gave birth to the two key components of The Dinner Party strategy: build a network of young hosts, and connect them to others nearby looking for a seat.
Today, hosts are actively recruited (and not all are selected) into a network of more than 290 other table hosts in 92 cities around the world. Hosts receive the guidebook, branded materials, on-going training (including on how to spot people who might need professional care), invitations to annual in-person retreats, curated best practices, and access to a private social network of other hosts around the world where insights, ideas, and peer-support “perpetually lift the bar on what it means to be a host.”
While seasoned hosts are key multipliers of other hosts (as they convene tables of trainees and grow the network), their central role is convening tables of their own, hosting potluck-style dinners (on average one every 8-10 weeks), with roughly the same mix of people each time. In their first 12 months, the number of tables grew more than 300%, from 30 to 105. That number has more than doubled again, and interest in hosting or joining a table is growing exponentially (with 1,200 direct requests in the first three months of 2016 alone).
Through these efforts, The Dinner Party makes the personal experience of loss accessible as a normal subject that individuals and groups can use as fuel for directing their energies to pursuing what they really value and who they really are. (According to advisor Jan Visick, “the analogues to AA and LGBT coming out are obvious”.) The reason this works is that, according to Cook, “most grief is just normal grief. You just really, really miss your dad. And for this, there’s nothing like community that says this is normal, natural, the healthiest thing you can be doing.”
Not only do therapists like Cook and others around the country regularly refer clients, but interest in The Dinner Party has been generated by word-of-mouth and on account of features on NPR’s Morning Edition, CNN, O Magazine, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Huff Post Rise, Los Angeles Magazine, and more than a dozen other major media outlets. To meet this demand, The Dinner Party is investing in a combination of human and technological resources to match people with available seats. Over time their “human algorithm” has become more successful at seeding lasting relationships based on compatibility across age, proximity, gender, life phase, and interests and passions.
Where demand for tables outpaces the development of the host community or falls outside of The Dinner Party’s core constituency, Lennon shares the Host Guidebook and tips on how to “signal” to and draw together a community from your existing network. There are already over a dozen self-organized tables of people in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s. Furthermore, the team leads trainings and corporate consulting for aligned organizations and actively shares their learnings, principles, and distilled best practices with survivors of sexual assault, divorcees, those who’ve experienced miscarriage or pregnancy loss, and other interested individuals and networks. Lennon and a male Dinner Party host in Boston are working with CrossFit on an iteration that appeals more to mixed-gender or all-male “tables” (with the hopes of developing a model that can be spread to CrossFit boxes across the country).
In contrast to most grief support offerings to date, The Dinner Party has championed a model that comes across as an inviting, good thing to do for yourself (as opposed to treating a disease that needs fixing) and that helps individuals practice integrating loss into their lives without getting stuck in it, all for free. As The Dinner Party scales and more individual conversations, micro-communities, or partnerships are seeded across racial, education, and class barriers, the promise that “you are part of something bigger” is fulfilled, further motivating a growing number of people reframing loss from conversation-killer to community-builder.
“Two days after my mom died, I did my first read-through as Puck in a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No one in the cast ever found out.”
Lennon was raised in North Carolina by parents who instilled in her the importance of hard work and living authentically. But her dreams of studying theater and someday performing under bright lights were cut short when, in her senior year of high school, her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Lennon lived what Parker Palmer calls a “divided life,” frequently returning home on weekends and excelling at college 30 minutes down the road during the week… and all along working hard to keep these two worlds from colliding, or collapsing.
When her mother died in her senior year of college, Lennon threw herself into work. In college she had become “hooked on building things” with friends and learned through personal experience (selling people on ideas, raising funds, leading civic organizations on campus) and from model changemakers (like the late Nobel Prize-winner, Wangari Maathai). She was a fast fit at Ashoka, where she was part of the global Venture team in 2008 and the AshokaU team launching the Changemaker Campus initiative. When Lennon moved to LA in 2010, she joined GOOD/Corps, an innovative media and social impact agency that worked with groups ranging from Pepsi to ABC News to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was here that she met her (would be) co-founder Carla. It had been three years since her mom died when she and Carla realized they had something in common: Carla had lost her dad just six months earlier. For the first time, loss became a conversation-starter, rather than a conversation-killer. Carla convened the first dinner party, before it became “The Dinner Party,” on her back deck later that year. Dinners have been happening ever since. At one point, Lennon recalls, when “we realized this was no longer just our story, I hit a point where I couldn’t not give this a shot.” So, at the end of 2013 and with the help of her mom’s life insurance money, she launched The Dinner Party full-time.