Take Note: Lennon Flowers on Creating Supportive Spaces for Grieving 20- and 30-Somethings
Lennon Flowers is passionate about creating spaces where “humans can be human.” In service to that goal, she co-founded The Dinner Party—a platform that connects grieving 20- and 30-somethings. Today, The Dinner Party has more than four thousand active members that gather at local tables in more than 100 cities and towns around the world. Lennon talked with us about her own experience with grief, the unique challenges of experiencing loss in early adulthood, and how The Dinner Party Works.
To learn more about The Dinner Party, click here.
Here's the interview:
Lindsey Whissel Fenton:Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party. This platform offers a space for grieving 20- and 30-somethings to find peer community and build lasting relationships. Lennon came up with the idea after her mom died during Lennon’s senior year of college. Today, The Dinner Party has more than 4000 active members that gather at local tables and more than 100 cities and towns around the world. Lennon, welcome to Take Note.
Lennon Flowers: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
Fenton: The death of your mom is what ultimately inspired you to found The Dinner Party. So, before we get into talking about what that is, and explaining how it came to be, can you just tell us a little bit about your mom?
Flowers: Yeah, absolutely. My mom, her name was Sue Flowers. My mom grew up in eastern North Carolina on a tobacco farm, she was the child of poverty, and spent much of her young life kind of escaping that world. So, I think in a lot of kind of ways, grew up kind of between worlds, right? And one was the, you know, middle class Raleigh existence, and one that, you know, was a pretty comfortable childhood, (inaudible) and a world of my extended family, which was a place in a community that, you know, was deeply familiar with struggle. And as a result, I think my mom had known a lot of hardship and struggle in her life and came from a world that would have you believe that you're very small. And she was incredibly insistent for my brother and I, that we know that our worlds could be very big. And she was a secretary in the arts, and for many years, a single mom, and did whatever she could to be that mom, kind of a ferocious lioness. But also somebody who, in probably the entirety of her life, never experienced what it was to not worry. And, so, she was a an artist, a photographer, and she got sick with stage four lung cancer, my senior year of high school, and it would be many years before I realized how unique having a mom who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, who was insistent on talking about that, you know, with her 17-year-old and 14-year-old kids, how rare that was. And at the time, I wanted to talk about anything that wasn't cancer, you know, and I think developed some skills around compartmentalization as a result, but certainly a woman who had very little tolerance for intolerance and tolerance for b******t, you know, I think some of those hallmarks were passed down to her daughter.
Fenton: As you mentioned, you know, through your early adulthood, your mother was battling lung cancer. So, her illness, and I don't know how early you knew it was terminal, but you know, I'm assuming some of that anticipatory grief was present with you through some pretty formative years. And it sounds like you whether you wanted to or not, you had some conversations around that. I'm just wondering how you look back and view, the experience of having a terminally ill parent in your early 20s has shaped who you are?
Flowers:That's a really good question. I mean, I, you know, like, I think it a lot of ways because it was such a pivotal time, you know, she was diagnosed, I think, November of my senior year of high school. And so that was, you know, the exact month that I had begun submitting college applications. And at the time, I was like, hell bent on getting out of North Carolina, and I was a theater kid. And like, that was one pathway that, you know, felt very certain in my future and her getting sick, and we did know immediately that it was terminal. She was actually given one year, but did not share that with us. And she survived for. But it certainly meant, you know, from that point forward, it was kind of a pivot point, you know, that changed everything in my life. So, I think one of the consequences of that is that I am benignly curious about who I would have been had it not been for her getting sick. But every one of my decisions from where I went to college, and you know, what I was studying while there, what I was getting into as a survival strategy of staying extremely busy and a time that I needed that, you know, to keep kind of pushing through. So much of who I became right was shaped by that experience. And so, it's been interesting, I think, only in the last few years, have I began to kind of look at what are the elements of mine, the characteristics that were passed down by my mother as a living person, and not as a person who was dying and then died. Because I can totally tell you very little in my life has been untouched by that experience and very little of the person that I became was untouched by that experience. But it's been interesting to kind of start to reclaim elements of you know, an identity and personal I get to understand who my mother was, as a living person shaped how she met that moment. And how I did as well. Yeah, you know, I ended up going to school about 20 minutes down the road from where I grew up and thought as a result that I was like, deeply involved in, you know, what was happening at home, I think, only in retrospect and over years with my brother today, like fully appreciate also the luxury of distance and not being under that roof in what were for very hard years in a family that was complicated before and remained complicated after, you know. But it also gave me I continued to kind of exist between those two worlds, the one that was like clinical trials and trips, frequent trips home on weekends, and these sorts of things and trying to be really present for my stepdad and other people in our lives, including my mom. And then the other was like, just kind of being hell bent on being a college student, right. And so, for me, I got hyper involved in a lot of student organizing, and anything like really, that was a product of just needing to like exercise some measure of tight control in a world and in a life that didn't have a lot of it.
Fenton:You were a senior in college when your mom ultimately died. And that is, you know, grief is always a very lonely experience. But there are things certain challenges inherent to being a grieving 20- or 30-something, just in terms of sort of where you are in your life. What was your experience of that?
Flowers:Yeah, yeah, it's a great question. I think what is unique about it is the experience that you are oftentimes among the first in your peer community to go through it, with the result that grief, you know, is unique to every person, what is unique in your 20s and 30s, is the isolation that attends it. And the way in which it kind of cuts you off from the rest of the peer community, you know, so, for me, what I was worrying about, as a 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21. and thereafter, you know, young adult was profoundly different from what my fellow students in college and friends were thinking about and caring about. And so, as a result of that isolation, and not having anybody with whom to talk about it openly, you kind of internalize the feeling that there's something wrong with me. And that whatever it is that I'm feeling at any given juncture, is the wrong thing to be feeling, right? If you're having a good day, like, how dare you have that good day, you know, if you fall apart, you know, in the peanut butter aisle, like there's something inherently fragile or broken about you, right? And so, I think it's the lack of, you know, spaces that normalize that experience, because it isn't normal, you know, and thank God. But, you know, as a result, I think it also, because, you know, like, you're in a pivotal point in life, where you're making a lot of like, other major decisions, right, pertaining to jobs, and family and career and who you want to be. And all of those decisions are colored by, like this other experience that you carry on your shoulders, right? And so, we think that there's something you know, similar, like, the in Harry Potter, you know, it's the, you know, people who have watched someone die, can see flying dragons, right? You know, there's literally a magical creature that is invisible to everybody else. So, I think that there is something true about that, in experiencing loss young that there is, you know, it's people who seem magical creatures, and that isn't to like, romanticize, or, you know, try to cover up kind of the pain attached and the loneliness that also attends that experience, right? And the heartbreak that, what it means is that you're not only reading one loss, you're grieving a lifetime of losses, right? Because the presumption and expectation that someone would be here on a college graduation, you know, and would be the person that you would call when you get your first job, you know, and all of these other moments and milestones. They're not there. I think I didn't, in my relationship with my mom, you know, has evolved quite considerably, actually, since she died, but I never got the chance to relate to her as an adult woman. And so, we think it's those sorts of things that, you know, we're part of the unique footprint of grief when it happens to you at a young age.
Fenton: And that is such a, you know, you're sort of aged out of a lot of the resources that exist for grieving children, because that, you know, usually runs out at 18. What was that like for you? Was there anyone around you who shared in that experience? how did how did you navigate being a bereaved 20-something?
Flowers: I think, you know, later on, as we were starting The Dinner Party, we're looking at the kind of bereavement space for children and people under 18 and realized that so much of that world was shaped by creating spaces where kids could be kids. And what we wanted was to create a space where 20- and 30-somethings could be 20- and 30-somethings and I hadn't had it. I went to one grief support group on campus, which was actually led by students who either had lost someone significant, maybe it was just limited to parents that can't remember or were caregivers or facing terminal illness. And, and I do remember connecting with a couple of people in that room that were probably six of us, and really had like that moment of relief and discovery that I wasn't the only one because to that point, I had been, and I didn't know anybody else, who was 21 and, you know, dealing with what was going on in my home. And there was a real comfort in that I think that group didn't ever meet again, you know, because college students and busy schedules, and part of the problem set attached to it, you know, was that it was like, on the 10th floor in a psychology building. And you know, 8pm, you know, like, after a day of classes under fluorescent lights, as we sat in desks, you know, that we used in classrooms, right? Like, there was nothing intimate or inviting about that particular space and conditions. So, while there was something definitely comforting about the presence of other people, and the knowledge that I wasn't alone, it wasn't, you know, we never spoke to one another again, and it wasn't a catalyst for real friendships. And it ended up being, you know, like the, I guess, the day the week that my mom died, I had just been cast in a student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as Puck was in this outdoor amphitheater. And, you know, like, from my freshman year of seeing this amphitheater is like I have they do Midsummer one day, I was like, super, you know, again, a theater nerd. And even having gone away from that in like a professional path, I was super excited to, like get back on the stage. And that the Saturday I think about 40, to 48 hours after she had died, was the first read through and nobody in the cast ever found out. And I remember, like, looking back on that now I, you know, like, want to hug that 21-year-old and like, recognize the like amount of energy that she was expanding, to appear okay and to show up and perform, quite literally, in other spaces. But I also think that there was something about that experience at the time, that was also a real comfort, because as a result of being the only person that I knew, anytime, you know, other people my age found out what was going on, it was immediately met with that deer in headlights kind of expression or the pity phase. And “I'm so sorry,” you know, and it wasn't born of any ill will by any means. It was just that people didn't know what to say. And we didn't have, you know, a vocabulary for it. So, actually like that space, that stage with a group of people who I hadn't known before, we were all cast in the same production was such a source of relief, because suddenly, I wasn't the person with the dying or dead mom. And I think it would take you years to actually find other people who shared that same experience and then out of that, to understand what it was like to actually be at ease in the company of a group of friends where you didn't have anything to hide.
Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Noteon WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton and our guest is Lennon Flowers. Lennon is the co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, a peer community platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings. Your grief and this experience of losing someone in your 20s and isolation that comes from that ultimately led you to co-found The Dinner Party. So how did you come up with this idea? How did it start evolving to be…how did we get to the dinner party?
Flowers: Yeah, so I—
Fenton: Actually I should first say what it? What is The Dinner Party?
Flowers: Sure. Yeah, that dinner party is a community of 20-, 30-, or 40-somethings who've all experienced the loss of someone significant to them. And, in a pre-COVID-world gathered around potluck dinner tables, in a post-COVID-world gather in 1000 other ways, who are fundamentally interested in this kind of question of what does it mean to move forward and not on? And how do we recognize that this experience that we're often so good at avoiding is actually an extraordinary catalyst of some of our deepest conversations and deepest relationships.
Fenton: So then, how did you come up with that idea?
Flowers: Yeah. So, you know, The Dinner Party began entirely by accident, you know, and my entry point into that was responding to a really good invitation. I had, I guess, The Dinner Party, you know, the first gatherings in the fall of 2010. I was had just turned 25. At the time. It was about three and a half years since my mom had died. And I had moved out to California. And after a few years living in DC, I was, you know, at the time kind of itchy feet in your mid-20s as one does and followed a musician boyfriend to California. And I would very soon thereafter break up with my musician, boyfriend and I was, you know, looking for the thing that one is always looking for when you find yourself in a new place, which is friends and a community. And it was my first day in the office in a new job. And then I interviewed a woman named Carla. And it turned out she had also just moved to LA, also for her musician boyfriend, and would also soon break up with that musician boyfriend. And then we just became really good friends. And it was several months into that friendship and into working together that she shared, her dad had died six months before. And suddenly, this kind of conversation that I had been quite effective at avoiding, you know, for years, was one that I was actually ready to talk about. But there weren't a lot of good spaces for us to talk about it, right. It's not like, we shared that on a walk back from coffee, which, you know, it's like, I can't remember most of the conversations that I've had in the last 48 hours, but I still remember that one. And the problem is that, you know, it's not one for the office water cooler. And so, you know, probably a couple weeks after that, I got an email where Carla had invited a handful of people that she met in a variety of different circumstances a woman she met at the bar, a friend of a friend, from college, someone should go to high school with and name. And all of us had lost parents as recently as a few months. And some, you know, as long as many years, and she invited everybody for a dinner on her back deck and a chance to kind of explore those dark hallways together and to reflect on not only the, you know, deaths of people we had known and loved, but on the way in which their lives and those deaths, you know, shaped what we were thinking about, as those 20-somethings that could see magical creatures, you know, had a different set of priorities and questions that we were asking about what was and wasn't important. And I immediately I think, within minutes, jumped at that opportunity and said, yes, you know, we'll be there, what do you need me to bring? And then, you know, still with kind of some hesitation and fear, you know, like walked up her steps, you know, and knocked, and I like, remember the feeling very acutely of like, WTF am I doing? You know, like, do I really want to be here right now? I could be doing literally anything else. And, you know, immediately walked into the kitchen and Carla has a very warm way of kind of putting people in Ian's you know, put a glass of wine in my hand. And we set the table together. And you know, then we were off to the races. And it ended up being just such a vibrant conversation. I think we talked until about two in the morning. And you know, everybody, inadvertently slumber party at her house. And then the next morning, we drove off from our jobs, you know, but out of that route, just a really good group of friends, you know, and friends who could catch up on everything else that friends catch up on about from dating in your early 20s to jobs and what was happening at home. But (inaudible), nothing was off the table. And I had found, you know, especially in like just moving out to LA, so much of my life felt like a landmine. At the time, you know, any innocuous question about parents about home, you know, it no longer existed. For me, it was something I was having to create, you know, for the first time. And so, you know, in that space, it really felt like home, you know, and there was an ease to those conversations. And as we grew more comfortable with our stories, we discovered like Oh, actually, it turns out, we weren't as alone as we thought it was just that all of us were really good at never going there. And so, you know, Dinner Parties sprang up in the Bay Area, and courtesy of an introduction from Carla's therapist, and in DC, I was going back and forth for work at the time, and some colleagues there and who it turned out, one of whom had lost his dad and another friend of a friend had lost her twin brother to suicide. And this kind of word-of-mouth phenomenon as, as we began sharing our own stories, more and more people started raising their hands and saying the words Me too, and after a while, you know, it had taken over my nights and weekends. And I think the right moment to start anything is when you can't not do it. And eventually that moment hit and so The Dinner Party, you know, quit my job a few years later by the end of 2013. And we opened up our doors, you know, and it was like that kind of again, moment of terror of like, Oh my god, am I about to be that 20-something who's the grief girl? Cool. You know, I bet she'll have a really easy time getting dates. And instead, the problems that we encountered was more demand than we could handle and that was a good problem to have.
Fenton: How is The Dinner Party different from like a traditional support group? You know, like that classroom you went to when you were in college?
Flowers: Totally. I mean, like, I think if you take apart the word support in group, right, then it's not that different, or it shouldn't be a group of humans who are supportive to one another. And the problem is, you know, like, certainly the stigma that we attach to the word support group. And the fact that so often, you know, that experience of being on the 10th floor of a psychology building under fluorescent lighting and bad seating, you know, is not unfamiliar, right. You know, there's a lot, that kind of church basement stereotype and I don't mean, you know, any offense to church basements, but that we have a fairly clinical model of care. And within that, we feel like, if you don't have letters behind your name, and you're not a professional, then it's too hard to touch. Right? And you are correct, that nobody but trained counselor should be providing counseling, right. And there's a lot of things out there that you know, are amateur psychotherapy. And I think what we came to kind of appreciate was that this was a complement to not actually a replacement of, you know, I think in our early days, were like, oh, we're punk rock, grief support. Cool, you know, and then we're like, oh, actually, there were people in our community, who were getting incredible value out of other support groups, led by therapist, right. And certainly, I'm the first to raise my hand was endorsement for therapy and every other model of care, you know, that you can access, what we were doing was creating circles of friends, and where do you gather with friends, you know, whoever you are, and wherever you come from, there's a familiarity and an intimacy, certainly to shared meals, right? There's something that helps, you know, like your body relax in that kind of environment, rather than what can feel strained and forced in conversation, you know, when you're sitting around a circle and metal folding chairs. So, what we were trying to get to, even though we didn't necessarily have language at the time, was just organic conversation with people who genuinely you know, went over time built real relationships and came to like each other, right? Using grief as the entry point, but not the place that conversations necessarily stayed right. But also, that was never in the most literal sense off the table.
Fenton: Obviously, COVID is impacting in-person gatherings. So how has the pandemic affected The Dinner Party?
Flowers: Yeah, I mean, I think 2020 it was the year in which grief left, literally no one unscathed. And if isolation was the problem that we were out to solve before 2020, and not grief, because indeed, grief isn't a problem. And the problem is that we consider it both the people affected and touched by grief itself and, certainly, who were carrying profound loneliness in that time grew, right? You take away hugs, good luck, right. And so, what has been interesting for us in this last year, is that in a lot of ways, I think I presumed that you needed the dining room table or the meal, you know, on pillows on the living room floor, or whatever it is, you know, to help people kind of ease into a conversation and relax and one around one another. And part of what we have found in this year, is that you didn't, and I think one thing that I don't miss from pre pandemic times, is, you know, the fact that we actually stick around to answer and answer honestly, the question, “How are you?” So, there is such a desperation that we're seeing right now for connection of any kind? And finally, you know, thank you, Megan Devine and so many others who have normalized the fact that it's okay to not be okay, right? And permission to feel. And so, part of what we're seeing as we've launched virtual tables, is that there's a real hunger to connect the some of the barriers that would prevent somebody from, you know, we used to the average table probably met every six to eight weeks or so. Now, it's every two to four, and some are meeting weekly. And the reason for that is both that desperation to connect in a meaningful way that isn't just like every other zoom, call the journal and not but it's also because you don't have to spend 45 minutes traveling on a subway, you know, and there is there were a lot of barriers to access that I don't think I fully appreciated for people with disabilities, you know, and the ability to reach a third floor, walk up rain for people with kids at home who couldn't get away for a classic dinner party and you know, on a Sunday night and so, we've actually seen rising rates of participation in the last year. And one of the things that I find most fascinating about this is that we are now with geography, no longer a barrier. It's a lot easier to find your people in this moment. If you were a non-binary person, you know, in the suburbs outside of Indianapolis, looking for something else who'd lost a sibling to suicide, I'm not sure that we would have ever been able to connect you to a group of people with that shared experience, both in the identity and loss experience. And you know, what we knew from before the pandemic was, you know, if you were the only person at a table who'd experienced the loss of a partner, among people who lost parents, right, that can, in fact, compound isolation, rather than reduce it, right, and your chances were, you weren't going to come back. And so, now we've launched about, I guess, close to 100 tables, since June of last year, all virtually, and about half of those are what we call affinity spaces, you know, for people with a shared identity, or shared experience of loss, and one that is, you know, poorly reflected, you know, even in a lot of art, like grief literature, let alone kind of our cultural narratives and what is visible and available to us. So, it's been interesting to see the hunger that people continue to feel for anything that's real, even if we can't, you know, satisfy the other very real hunger for hugs in this moment.
Fenton: Our virtual tables, a thing that might be carried forward, even post-COVID?
Flowers: Yeah, so I think that's one thing that we know is that those are here to stay. And we don't know when we'll reopen in person tables before the pandemic, we had about 400 active tables around the world. And some of those have continued gathering and just connecting over WhatsApps, and, you know, Zoom gatherings and all the rest. And somehow, then, at some point, when the world reopens in whatever form that looks like, we plan to reopen those, and then again, I am, you know, the first raise my hand is a sucker for dinner tables. But we also know that, you know, some needs will continue to be better served virtually. So, we'll continue those gatherings, we've actually, in the last year launched a buddy system, you know, helping people to find their grief pal, you know, an all in one on one connections. And you know, one of the things that we found there is that specificity really helps and matching people who share a whole host of similarities, you know, in both their last experience and who they are and what they're interested in connecting over and can be really powerful for those one to ones I think that they're in, sitting down around, you know, grief experiences in groups. Part of what we are out to combat is the notion that there is any one right way to grieve right? Or that any two stories ever look the same. My story is different from my brother's story, because we're different people or relationships were different. And so, I think that idea of like, I can only connect with somebody with the exact attitudes of my experience, you know, it does a real disservice to both parties, right? You're not here to fix each other or advise, but there is power in the naming of a story and seeing its similarities and seeing its differences, right. So, we want to create, continue to create some of those mixed group spaces. But we will continue to rely upon the internet to connect people whose experiences are deeply closely aligned and wouldn't have the chance to sit around the same table.
Fenton: Lennon Flowers, thank you for talking with us.
Flowers: Thanks. It's been great.
Fenton: Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, a peer community platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings. To learn more about The Dinner Party, visit wpsu-dot-org-slash-take-note. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.