MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So needless to say, Alan Devalerio, Gene Allen, John Ficklin, all these guys saw many, many dinner parties in their time at the White House. All sorts of fancy, and often formal events. But our next story is about a dinner party of another kind. It's called The Dinner Party and it's part of a Los Angeles based movement that's increasingly taking hold in D.C., Arlington and Baltimore. At these events, people gather for a very special purpose. To have a conversation about the people they've lost. Aileen Humphreys talked with a local Dinner Party host as she was preparing, recently, for an event.
MS. AILEEN HUMPHREYS
Iselin Gambert is a 34-year-old law professor at George Washington University. The cascade of losses in her life started 10-years ago when the man she was dating died without warning. Then her mother, Gry, was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and died five years later. She also lost her grandmother.
MS. ISELIN GAMBERT
Something that I think I have struggled with with experiencing really significant loss is how after a certain amount of time, society sort of expects you to stop talking about it.
That's why when she heard about The Dinner Party, all these lights went on in her head. This was a chance to be with other people to talk about things that can feel taboo.
You know, no matter how supportive people are, it's not the first thing on peoples' minds if it's been a number of years. And so this space really creates an opportunity to say, you know, we remember these people. We love them. We are still interested in talking about them and talking about how they shaped our lives. And that's been really special for me.
After losing someone, she says, there can be days that look normal to other people, but feel abnormal to you.
Right after I had this loss of the person I was dating 10 years ago, I went to buy, you know, a toothbrush in CVS. And it was just a few days after he died. And I could have sworn that anyone that looked at me could tell what I had just experienced. And it was sort of surreal that people couldn't tell, that, you know, I could buy that toothbrush and the person at the cash register didn't sort of stop me and say, oh my God, you've just experienced this really crazy loss -- this really, you know, surprising and unexpected loss, and the person just let me buy my toothbrush.
On a stormy Tuesday night, Iselin is prepping for the third Dinner Party at her home in Mt. Pleasant. The table is set with bright yellow sunflowers, plaid placemats, and cheery serving trays, printed with colorful owls and birds. Tonight's dinner is for five people. So, what are you making?
I'm making caramelized tofu, so it's sort of like a Vietnamese inspired dish. The sauce is kind of like a soy sauce with ginger and garlic, and it's sort of caramelizing around the tofu. It's pretty and it smells good.
Lauren Taylor and Jenny Stelloh arrive together from Takoma Park. They're neighbors and friends. Lauren's partner Gail died of breast cancer last year. Jenny's dad is dying of cancer and she's still reeling, too, from Gail's death and the death of her sister. She's in therapy, but says it feels good to be in the company of other people who are grieving.
MS. JENNY STELLOH
You know, like I just threw a Fourth of July party. I didn't talk about my Dad that day, even though he's present in my mind. Just because we're having fun. You know, watching a parade, watching kids play, eating good food, yeah. So, it feels good to have somewhere where feeling sad feels okay.
Lauren has sought out places to talk about Gail since she died.
MS. LAUREN TAYLOR
I went to a brief workshop, and one of the things we did in the workshop was we made collages and wrote about them. And then you shared your work with the rest of the group and I was -- it had a picture of Gail and then it had a bunch of other symbolic things, and then I was talking about her and everything. And while I was talking, I was crying, and people reached for tissues and unlike every other setting I've been in, they were reaching for tissues for themselves. They weren't like shoving tissues at me, which is kind of, I know people mean well by it, but it has a feeling of like, don't cry.
Now, it's time for dinner.
Eat whenever. The last two people ended up not being able to make it, so.
Conversations at The Dinner Party are confidential, but I can tell you what I talked about. My dad died of brain cancer 16 years ago. This fall, he'll have been gone for half my life. I think about him every day, but it wasn't until The Dinner Party that specifics came flooding back. I talked about the pressure I felt when people said it was so sad he died because he was so wonderful. It made me afraid some imagined scandal would emerge and they wouldn't be sad anymore.
I sat there picturing him before one of his radiation treatments with a metal frame literally screwed into his head so the beams would hit precisely the right spot. But like many at the table, I felt good after dinner. I felt cared about and understood. Lauren Taylor felt better, too.
I feel like -- like, I have conversations about this stuff, but not -- they're usually briefer and it's part of a lot of other stuff. And so, it felt like I want to have dinner where we're talking about death and loss and trauma every night. And it kind of takes something out of me, also. I'm like extra tired, but I do feel some relief. Like lightness. A little bit of lightness.
The table has been cleared, the leftovers parsed out. Everyone's gone home for the night. Iselin and I are getting ready to say goodbye, too.
It seems a little weird to say I had a lot of fun tonight, but I think that in a lot of ways, I really did. And I think a lot of us said that we felt, you know, sort of happier at the end of the meal. And I feel like there was a lot that we talked about that was intense and sad and scary. Or may have been hard to actually get the courage to say out loud, but it felt really, sort of empowering to be able to say it. And just to have that shared space with everyone in the room was really special to me. So, glad that I was able to host tonight, and I'm glad you're able to be there. So, thanks a lot.
I'm Aileen Humphreys.
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