The Dinner Party

How sharing a meal with a group of strangers showed me the healing power of community.

I ’ve thought a lot about cheese bread since Julia died. We were picky eaters as kids—infuriatingly picky, if you ask our moms. We both refused to eat fruit until adulthood and insisted on pizza-no-sauce throughout our childhood.

“Which is just … bread with melted cheese?” asks my husband, Chris. We’re at our favorite pizza place in Austin, where we live. I eat pizza with sauce now, because I’m 30 and get why sauce is a thing, but I’m tempted to order a pizza-no-sauce. It’s not Julia’s birthday; it’s not a holiday; it’s not any particular milestone. I’m just thinking about her, and missing her, and feeling the hollowness of the hole in my heart that I’m sure a chest X-ray would diagnose. There it is, the cardiologist would say, pointing to a black gap spread across both ventricles. There’s your grief.

Julia was my best friend. Is my best friend, considering that I talk to her in my head on the regular. Best friends since age 3. She died at 29, in the backseat of a car struck by a drunk driver. I don’t have memories of my life pre-her.

The type of dough is important. It should be thick and dense, and the cheese should bubble and brown and stretch like taffy when you take a bite from one end and pull the other as far from your mouth as your peach-fuzz arms can extend. Oh, and it should be cut into squares, crusts off.

Chris laughs, and we order grown-up pizza with sauce.

I ’m on my way to a stranger’s apartment in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. It’s my first time at a gathering organized by The Dinner Party, a nonprofit that places 20- and 30-somethings grappling with grief in small dinner party groups. Formed in 2010, the organization has since expanded to 275 tables in nearly 150 cities worldwide. Its website describes the mission best: “We get together over potluck dinners to talk about the ways in which [loss] continues to affect our lives and how to thrive in #lifeafterloss.”

My neck aches from pantomiming the visual cue of “Yes, yes, I feel all of this too, and what a relief not to be so alone.”

There are two conditions, as far as I can tell, of attending a dinner party with The Dinner Party. One: Experience earth-shattering loss. And two: Bring something to eat.

No problem. I haven’t felt like a whole person since Julia died, and I love food. I especially like to turn cold leftovers, congealed inside Tupperware, onto a plate and admire how the food took the form of its container—I call this “shape.”

Despite this, I forgot to eat for the first two weeks after Julia died. Platters lined the counters at Julia’s parents’ house—I think everyone they’d ever met delivered at least one tray of pastries. I remember Julia’s cousin cutting a muffin in two and folding my fingers around the good half, the soft, chocolate chip-studded top.

Food and grief, one of the most consistent pairings in human history.

Do I cook something considered “comfort food” for The Dinner Party dinner party? What the heck is comfort food, when you’re fixating on death? Something that reminds me of her? Or something that does the opposite, that won’t make me and everyone else too sad to eat?

I should’ve made cheese bread.

I torture myself on the hour-long drive to Silver Lake. I’d considered it yesterday while grocery shopping at the Albertsons near our parents’ houses, but ended up in the wine aisle, staring at the shelves of rosé.

What would Julia drink? Or better yet, What would Julia drink while revealing how her death broke the world apart? I picked a rosé bottle with the least peppy label: stars. Stars are fine.

Maybe I’ll tell the strangers I’ll soon meet about how Julia brought a case of rosé to the bachelorette party she threw me, because she knew that was all I’d want to drink while floating in a mineral pool in the desert. Or maybe I’ll tell them about how she’d stand behind the bar at the restaurant she managed and pour me overabundant “tastes”—deep splashes that her family and I call “Julia pours.” I stow the memories away and think that I’m prepared. I have a consumable potluck item, and I have my grief.

“I hate saying ‘lost,’” says Marlana, a 27-year-old songwriter, as she passes a serving dish of cauliflower salad. “Because they didn’t go missing.”

I agree, though I don’t say so. I nod. It’s true. We know where our lost loved ones are: They’re not here.

The six of us sit around the table in our host Alex’s apartment. It’s spacious and airy, filled with blond wood and whites and creams. We’re all strangers to one another. Some have attended events through The Dinner Party before; others are brand new like me. Everyone is warm and open, equal parts generous in unpacking their most personal stories and in giving the floor to their newfound confidants to do the same.

There’s a lot of “Yes!” And “Oh, my God, totally.” And “Same.” My head soon feels like it belongs to a bobblehead doll. Everything everyone says resonates, and my neck aches from pantomiming the visual cue of “Yes, yes, yes, I feel all of this too, and what a relief not to be so alone.”

Marlana’s sister and brother passed away unexpectedly. Alex, a TV writer, cared for her mom full time in her last months. Juan, a production assistant and the youngest at 22, buried his dad last year. Two women, casting assistant Sara and classical musician Lauren, watched both their parents fall ill and die.

Grief is a universal experience that every person will endure; but grief carries a different weight when it hits you young.

Between us, we’ve lost enough loved ones to account for all fielding positions on a baseball team—which is a meaningless observation. It’s instinct, I think, to contextualize this impossible load of grief within something contained, familiar, anodyne. We’ve also lost enough loved ones to make up the entire Supreme Court.

The others share readily, hungrily even. This night is a reprieve from every other night, where well-meaning others don’t know what to say when we mention our dead loved one’s name, or how to react when we’re in the thick of a “sad day.”

“That’s part of the beauty of The Dinner Party,” says Marlana. “We wouldn’t be sharing this intimately, I feel like, with anybody.”

Tonight, though, I find myself unable to pipe up. My voice shrinks away, like it did when I was a kid at birthday parties, or on the first day of school. If Julia were here, she’d make this spilling-in-front-of-strangers thing easier. Julia could eviscerate my natural shyness and draw me out in a loud, dynamic group. Julia could make me feel like myself when no one else knew the difference.

Conversation moves fast at the table. The group transitions with ease from “zombie mode” in those first few months of shock, to how grief sneaks around and drops in unannounced.

“It’s not something where you can sit and be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to grieve now,’” says Sara. She recalls breaking down inside of a World Market because her mom loved World Market.

I’ve got a story—a recent drive to Target, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” an old Julia favorite, strums onto the radio, and I sob in the parking lot—but I’m not quick enough, not brave enough, and the conversation moves …

To voicemails, and I think about how I lost Julia’s messages after updating my phone, but the conversation moves …

To how hard we are on the people we know will love us no matter what, and I think about how I hurt Chris when I accused him of not understanding my pain, but the conversation moves …

To seeing our dear departed—and their deaths—everywhere, and how Marlana can no longer eat apples because she was about to eat one when she got the news that her brother had died. I think about the half-bathroom attached to my bedroom. It was there that I answered the phone from Julia’s little sister as I got out of the shower on July 7, 2015. I think about how I haven’t used that bathroom since.

I wish I could plop the congealed contents of my brain onto a plate for the others to note the “shape.”

But it’s easier to listen.

Julia’s big sister told me about The Dinner Party not long after Julia died. I fell in love with the concept, that loose collectives of people in our peer group could support one another through the worst that life has thrown at us. Grief is a universal experience that every person will endure at some point; but grief carries a different weight when it hits you young. It just does.

I’ve almost convinced myself that I don’t need to partake in the storytelling to get the full Dinner Party experience, though. Just being in the room, I decide, is enough. And the room, despite the subject matter, is light. The nodding begets laughing, which feels like deep therapy in and of itself.

“I call it a Dead People Party,” Marlana says of events like the one we’re at, and we roar. “My friends are like, ‘You’re so dark and so morbid.’ It’s like, ‘You don’t know!’ I’m allowed!”

The starry-labeled rosé I brought is a hit. So are two bottles of red and a six-pack of beer, and I think a bottle of white makes the rounds too. This is also unanimous: Everyone commends the power of alcohol to make grief more tolerable.

I mumble something about how I wish I were drinking. It’s true, and it’s the longest sentence I’ve uttered in hours. I loathe the phrase “liquid courage” because it’s musty and pompous, but it’s not wrong. Marlana asks if I can’t have one small glass of wine.

“This is really weird,” I say. “But I just found out that I’m pregnant.”

I can’t believe that I spoke. Or that I said this. I’d bought two pregnancy tests at Albertsons along with the wine the day before and chuckled to myself about the purchase combo. EPTs and rosé! How absurd is existence! Apart from Chris, these five strangers are the first people to learn our news.

They scream. “Congratulations!”

I don’t tell them that we mourned a miscarriage in the fall. I don’t tell them that we plan to name our kid a “J” name, after Julia. And I don’t tell them that I told Julia the news, in my head, the night before, and that in my imagined memory, she cried. I don’t tell them, because I don’t need to say anything else.

The glee in these strangers’ voices, the smiles spread wide on their faces—it overwhelms me.

“It’s nice to know there’s still life even when there isn’t life,” says Marlana.

And I go back to nodding, because I agree.

Stephie Grob Plante has written for The Atlantic, Racked, and Pacific Standard. Shoot her a note at [email protected].

Illustration by Marc Aspinall

Originally Published September 2017