While my alarm is set for 6am on a Saturday morning, my anticipation for spending a weekend with The Dinner Party pops me out of bed earlier. The Dinner Party is a community of 20 and 30 somethings who each have had a significant loss in their life. An agenda is set for Saturday and Sunday yet the unknown lies ahead. I depart at 645a. It's too early to listen to EDM so I start the ride with an episode from the podcast OnBeing, which focuses on all elements of humanity. The sun slowly begins to light up the sky exposing the colorful fall foliage of upstate NY. After a quick pitstop, I decide to shuffle some Andrea Bocelli. Listening to Bocelli reminds me of when my parents, sister and I saw him perform live in Central Park in 2011. Bocelli especially reminds me of my father. You could always hear Bocelli’s operatic voice blaring from my father’s pickup as he pulled into the driveway.
I am heading to Hyde Park for The Dinner Party’s East Coast Retreat. The organization was started by a few friends to bring people together over potluck dinners to discuss grief and life after loss. I applied on the website to join a table in December of 2015 and received a response a month later. The idea of openly discussing your emotional grief and experience of loss with strangers violates your comfort zone. However, I saw this as an opportunity to find other humans walking this planet who were around my age and who also have unfortunately suffered a significant loss. My table commenced in January. Months later our small group of six continues to meet up for dinners as well as fun activities or meaningful dates, including birthdays and anniversaries. I can't explain how the mystery of the universe lines up the right people, at the right time, but I am grateful for being matched with these five strangers who I now call my friends.
I arrive at the Gregorian Manor to find most of the attendees awake and in their PJs. I’m immediately jealous by everyone's comfiness, I take off my shoes and start moseying around to get familiar with the layout of this huge joint. I notice a table with named folders so I grab mine and head to the living room where I begin conversing with others. It's about 9am and the crowd begins to grow. I grab a spot on the couch and share a huge blanket with three other Dinner Partiers. The day begins. For the next few hours I participate in, along with 24 other people, group activities that include discussions on hosting, Touchstones from www.couragerenewal.org, and a solo activity from www.openmasters.org on self-identification with life after loss.
By the time I look at my watch it’s almost five o’clock! Around 5:30p two of the five cars holding ten people pack up and head out to the Mill House, a cozy historic 17th century water mill. They went there to arrange the dining areas for the dinner. The remaining 15 Dinner Partiers stayed at the Manor to cook in a kitchen that had two of everything including ovens, sinks and microwaves. Everyone had a station to clean, cut, peel and test the mozzarella cheese more than once. This is where I began to see true smiles beam across people’s faces and their love for cooking shined as they prepared. Finalmente, it was time for everyone to jump in the three additional cars, each passenger holding a plate or tray of food. It was a challenge to navigate the windy roads while trying to keep a tall pot of butternut squash soup from spilling.
Fifteen minutes later fifteen of us arrive at the Mill House and the excitement of being in this picturesque location had everyone roaming and exploring every aspect, inside and out. We quickly unload the cars, reheat a few dishes and manage to set up all the food buffet style in a kitchen that should have had a sign posted “no standing room.”
Back in the kitchen, plates were loaded with food and the group split between two tables, one in the dining room and one on the outside porch. At my table, when we were all seated, we immediately voted to have a traditional Dinner Party which involved everyone introducing themselves and who they lost. Stories were shared. Tears poured. Laughs echoed. Hugs were in motion. Story after story, my heart went out to each one of these individuals. I had a sense of their struggles, their moods, their feelings towards the idiotic remarks they have received over time. It’s hard to explain this type of moment to friends and family: one where I sit around with strangers, pour out my emotions, grief and love for my parents, and can trust that the person sitting next to me has walked a very similar path. I’ve experienced a slow, drawn-out loss and a sudden, unexpected loss, both within a nine month period. Two deaths too close to comprehend. Finding the Dinner Party has helped me feel less alone in a world where “I’m sorry for your loss, time to move on” is the reality.