Oct 11, 2020 • 7M

Back in year three.

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For the last few years, I’ve been obsessed with sending and receiving voicenotes in lieu of text messages. With that in mind, the above ‘podcast’ contains the audio of me reading the below newsletter aloud, wee bits of background noise included.

I went to a dinner party! Which is to say, I logged into a Zoom call from the comfort of my Belfast apartment, with a bowl of almonds and a pint of water within arm’s reach.

The Dinner Party is an organization which calls itself “a platform for grieving 20- and 30-somethings to find peer community and build lasting relationships.” I would call it ‘a gathering of people who have lost various important people for various terrible reasons and who are currently experiencing varying relationships with grief.’

While I can’t recall how I first heard of The Dinner Party, I certainly remember the first one I attended while living an hour north of Boston, Massachusetts.

When the email came through with a sign-up sheet for the potluck event, I struggled to decide what dish can I make that is perfect to share with a room full of grieving people? Grief food for me is chocolate milk or Chipotle or nothing at all. After a bit of waffling between family favorite dessert recipes (lemon bars? peanut clusters?), I put myself on the non-alcoholic drinks list and made a note in my planner to pick up a gallon of chocolate milk before driving into the city.

I knew the dinner party was held in someone’s home, but until I walked through the front door of K’s apartment, kicking off my Vans into the other piled-up shoes, I hadn’t realized how important this was. We weren’t in a clinical space, nor were we in an office spruced up to feel falsely home-y. We were shoulder to shoulder in a kitchen and a living room that felt like anyone of my friends’ homes.

We ate and we talked and it was the first time I’d felt comforted in my grief by my peers. The majority of the other partiers had lost parents, but we all still recalled shared experiences: head tilts accompanied by oh I’m so sorry, being told our person is in a better place, the way year two after a loss is worse than year one. (I also don’t believe ‘partiers’ is the term The Dinner Party uses, but it makes me smile. Grief humor, I suppose.)

March 2021 will mark thirteen years since my big brother, Garrett, passed away. He was eighteen and I was fifteen. Next year will also mark twelve years for Tanner, eight years for Robert, six years for Taylor, and four years for Sonya. All young, all sudden, all loved, all missed.

I think people are likely to have one of two initial responses while reading that.

  1. ‘Oh, I had no idea. I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry. That must be so hard.’

  2. ‘I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it? Or do you want a hug? Or would you like a cat meme?’

The first response is what the majority of the public has learned about secondhand grief: respond, apologize, maybe feel that internalized shameful gratitude that you haven’t experienced this personally. (Nothing wrong with that, just a possible feeling.) The second response is what I’ve received predominantly from other people who have experienced grief out of the ‘natural’ order of things: a sorry that comes from a deep knowing, followed by a handful of action step-based questions, accompanied by the knowledge that my answers will likely change minute to minute.

The second response showcases the beauty of these dinner parties. This is not a club that any of us want to be a part of. I would absolutely love if my life hadn’t included any of these losses, if all of these people were still here today, if I hadn’t been touched by any of this. It is also a club that each of us are incredibly grateful to find community in.

I can speak about past daydreams where I let myself imagine that someone else’s brother was lost that day; as if the universe required some young man, but had selected a different one. I can say that and know there’s no shame around it and then continue with my meal or snack while hearing other daydreams from other partiers. It’s a gift to take part in these spaces.

During last week’s Zoom Dinner Party, I described my grief throughout COVID as feeling like it did back in year three after Garrett passed away. The reach of my empathy has tightened closer and closer around the people I love, because I can’t handle the overwhelming magnitude of empathizing with any others. My eating patterns have returned to ‘all the things’ or else ‘none of the things.’ I also cry more often and as intensely as I did then. (For the record, my year eleven involved very, very few tears, making this even more of an adjustment.)

Iterations of that phrase ‘back in year three’ were echoed throughout our party. Through tears, with smiles, in stories that some had never spoken aloud before. We talked about what still hasn’t changed, even with COVID. I mentioned how Garrett’s name and our parents’ new address have somehow gotten on home living / lifestyle magazine mailing lists, how these magazines tend to make us laugh now, rather than making us cry like mail with his name on it used to. I only feel comfortable telling stories like that when in spaces like these parties, where we each have experienced some version of every story that is being told, no matter who or when or how we lost our people.

I’ve been struggling with an internal expectation to wrap these newsletters up nicely, with a bow or a moral or a lesson or an action step. But sometimes, as I’m still (and probably always will be) learning, it’s okay to just feel and to listen and to be.