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Dinner Party Movement Offers Grieving Washingtonians A Gathering Place

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Iselin Gambert hosted a third dinner party this month at her home in Mount Pleasant. The Dinner Party is always a potluck and Iselin’s dinner parties feature vegan food.
Iselin Gambert
Iselin Gambert hosted a third dinner party this month at her home in Mount Pleasant. The Dinner Party is always a potluck and Iselin’s dinner parties feature vegan food.

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.

“Something 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,” Gambert says. “You know, no matter how supportive people are, it’s not the first thing on people’s mind if it’s been a number of years.”

That’s why, when she heard about The Dinner Party, “all these lights” went off in her head. This was a chance to be with other people to talk about things that can feel taboo.

The Dinner Party is a Los Angeles-based movement that’s increasingly taking hold in our region, with regular dinners in D.C., Arlington and Baltimore. It matches people who want to talk about the losses in their lives with a dinner host, who provides a regular place to meet.

Lauren Taylor watches her partner Gail Messier at a gathering where Gail shaved her head before chemotherapy treatments. Gail died last year. (Kaisa Nichols-Russell)

Earlier this month, Iselin hosted the third dinner party at her home in Mount Pleasant. The table is set for five people with bright yellow sunflowers, plaid placemats and cheery serving trays printed with colorful owls and birds.

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's nice to be in the company of other people who are grieving.

“It feels good to have somewhere where feeling sad feels okay,” Jenny says.

Conversations at the dinner party are confidential, but I can tell you what I talk 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’s not until tonight that specifics come flooding back. I picture him before one of his radiation treatments, with a metal frame literally screwed into his head so the beams will hit precisely the right spot.

Lennon Flowers with her mother, Sue, and her brother, Benjamin. Sue Flowers died in 2007. Lennon, a former DC resident, is a co-founder of The Dinner Party.

But like many people at the table, I feel good after dinner. I feel cared about and understood.

Lauren Taylor feels better, too.

“I also feel better,” Lauren says. “It’s not like I want to have dinner where we talk about death and loss and trauma every night … but I do feel some relief, like lightness, a little bit of lightness.”

The table gets cleared, the leftovers parsed out. Everyone heads home. Iselin reflects on the night.

“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,” she says. “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 actually say it.”

Music: "Pay Attention" by Bexar Bexar from Haralambos

Iselin and her mother
Iselin Gambert and her mother, Gry, at a family friend’s wedding in New York in 2004. Gry Gambert died in 2012. (Photo by Steven Gambert)
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