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At This Dinner Party, Talking About Death With Strangers Isn't Taboo

Talking about grief and the loss of a loved one isn't typically dinner conversation. Many people, even those struggling to cope with loss, will avoid talking about such heavy topics, especially over supper.

But a fledgling nonprofit designs dinners specifically for young adults to get together and talk about their experiences with loss.

In cities across the country, the group The Dinner Party advises 20- and 30-somethings on how to arrange these gatherings.

Some say it's one of the new ways that young adults, often skeptical of organized religion, are connecting to find meaning in their lives.

At a recent dinner in Boston, it first seemed like any other dinner party. Everyone was putting the last-minute touches on the meal as they waited for all the guests to arrive. They talked easily, even though it was the first time they had met in person.

Rosy Hosking was hosting the dinner in her Jamaica Plain apartment, where she set the table and prepared the main course for her guests.

"I have prepared a ratatouille. It's very easy, and it's also vegan," she said. "So it hits all the plus points of making dinner for people you don't know very well."

The guests at this potluck dinner had never met in person before, yet they'd come together to talk about something that has profoundly affected each of them — the loss of a loved one. After a toast and the usual small talk about traffic or the food, the conversation quickly became deeper.

Lennon Flowers, who started The Dinner Party group, was in town to talk with other Dinner Party hosts, as well as to attend a Harvard conference about these types of gatherings.

At dinner, she began the conversation everyone was there to have. In her case, she wanted to talk about the death of her mother nearly nine years ago.

"I was asked the question last week: 'How long has it been?' And I had to count on my fingers, and I realized that it will be nine years in February," Flowers said. "I'm just shocked by the passage of time. I just had this surge of missing the s— out of my mom."

The four women at the meal — and 80 percent of the people who attend these dinners are women — had lost a parent. Alison Bard, 29, lost her mother six years ago. She says she often can't talk about her loss with relatives, who may also be grieving, or friends who may find such conversations uncomfortable. She finds helpful to talk with others who are navigating early adulthood.

"I just started grad school, business school. My mom went to the same business school. This whole experience has been like, ' Hey mom — mom what would you — tell me about this ! I'm feeling out of my element here," Bard tells her fellow guests.

The Dinner Party started — by accident — five years ago, when Flowers and a co-worker arranged a dinner in Los Angeles for friends they knew who had lost a parent. Soon they were inundated with people asking how to hold their own. Now a formal nonprofit, The Dinner Party helps connect participants with tables across the country. The gatherings are not meant to offer professional grief support — but to pair young adults with others who can relate.

Jessica Foley was 13 when her father died. "I' m volunteering at this camp for kids who've lost someone and that's been really amazing - just feeling like in awe of that process," she says. "Like where the hell was camp when I was 13? ... This venue is my camp – with wine," she says of the dinner party.

The Dinner Party was cited in a recent Harvard Divinity School study as an example of how millennials are gathering in new ways that are almost religious. But a Pew Research Center survey in May found that more than a third of millennials, defined as those born after 1980, do not affiliate with any religion. Flowers believes young adults are eager to create their own communities to help find meaning in their lives.

"As we have kind of abandoned institutions and sacred spaces," Flowers says, "we are still looking for spaces where we can talk about what we normally would have shared with a priest."

Dinner Parties are now being held in more than four dozen cities around the country.

Copyright 2016 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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