Once a month, fewer than 20 people from a confidential roster sit down for Charlotte’s only official Dinner Party. Those who trickle in through the door of the host’s home are men and women in their 20s and 30s. They come in carrying a main dish, a side dish or a dessert and grab a drink, whether it’s coffee or wine.
And they are all connected by one experience: Significant loss.
The Dinner Party began in 2010 with a group of five women in California and has since spread to more than 120 cities and towns internationally. Dinner Parties are neither grief groups nor a replacement for professional forms of healing. They are simply unstructured gatherings of friends with organic conversation, intended to transform life after loss into non-isolation and community support.
So why might the one in Charlotte seem so exclusive? It’s simple: The concept is new to the city and only one Dinner Party table has been established.
Emily Barnhardt, 28, launched The Dinner Party in Charlotte in June 2016, starting with a table of six. She moved from Florida back to her Charlotte hometown after losing her best friend and roommate, Hannah, to suicide in May 2014.
“My world stopped,” she said. “I had lost friends before but this was different. This was really just — my daily routine was with her. She was my family there.”
Friends had tried to support her, but she still felt isolated. She couldn’t find a new sense of normalcy for her life.
With people in their 20s and 30s, Barnhardt pointed out, so much of our socialization is online and it can be hard enough to find deep, authentic, in-person connection.
In terms of loss, she said, “It can be a unique isolation when you’re among the first in your peer group to experience something like that.”
Barnhardt first heard about The Dinner Party as a contributing author to “Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss by Suicide.” Another author told her about the organization, and she went online hoping to join a table in Charlotte. There just wasn’t one. But a host training was coming up in New York.
She reflected. And she considered how she tries to live by the saying, “If you don’t see the thing that you need, create it.” So, Barnhardt said, “I just hopped on a plane and went.”
She has hosted 28 Dinner Parties in Charlotte, and the roster of table members has grown from six to 12. At that size, the table is closed. Now there’s a wait list.
“I hate that it’s closed and I don’t want it to be, but in order to be able to have authentic conversation we have to, because if you have too many people not everyone can really share,” she said. “We want it to be a relaxed environment where everyone can share as much as they want to.”
A second table
Since the original release of this article in 2017, a second Dinner Party table has been officially launched in Charlotte. The new host, who lost her father, started the second Charlotte Dinner Party in April 2018. This second table is quickly growing and is still accepting newcomers. Interested Dinner Partiers can submit a form to join this table through The Dinner Party website until it is full.
There’s no limit to growth, however. General inquiries about hosting additional tables in Charlotte can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. To join a table, to get added to a wait list, or to apply to host a new table, submit a form through the main website.
A typical dinner party
Nine to 10 people from Barnhardt’s roster typically turn up for dinner at her place, sharing a diverse background of loss that ranges from parent, to sibling, to friend, with different circumstances.
They will see special touches in Barnhardt’s house during the party: Candles lit under a Remembrance Frame that holds the photos and names of those loved and lost. Small plaques with existential quotes. Comical, square coasters about raisins tragically failing to turn into wine. Intentional, circular coasters with Dinner Party conversation starters. A sign carrying The Dinner Party manifesto, featuring phrases like: “We will abstain from bullshit. We will speak our own truth.”
Barnhardt is simply trying to create a comfortable space for organic conversation to help dinner partiers thrive in life after loss.
After appetizers, she’ll start the two-hour main-course conversation with something that resonated with her over the past month, reminded her of Hannah, or something she has worked through recently.
“It just goes from there,” she said.
The hours pass, then dissolve into dessert. And life goes on.
“You can have life and you can thrive and you can have the memories of your loved ones and how they shaped you and the person you are,” Barnhardt said. “And really, what The Dinner Party does, is it creates the kind of conversation that makes us better listeners, better leaders, in terms of just not being afraid to have conversations that matter.”
As more people express interest in Charlotte and beyond, it can only grow from here.
“The Dinner Party’s vision is that one day these Dinner Parties will be as pervasive and culturally acceptable as AA and yoga, and meditation, where someone can go to a city and regardless of whether they live there or are visiting there, they can look and they can find a table,” Barnhardt said. “And that that table will have an open seat for them.”
Photos courtesy of Emily Barnhardt (shared with permission)