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Just be there

Host an “all feelings welcome” dinner

For people struggling with grief or other challenges, the holidays—and all the cheer that goes with them—can be a painful reminder of what they lost or yearn for. There are things we can do to make the holidays land a little more gently—both for ourselves and the people we care about. One is bringing everyone together around the dinner table.

If you want to open your home to loved ones who are struggling this holiday season, our friends at The Dinner Party are here to help. They’re an organization focused on turning what can be an isolating experience—like grief—into a source of meaningful connection, using the age-old practice of breaking bread. Here, they share their recipe for planning an event where guests can let their guard down and openly share whatever they’re feeling—without fear of ruining the mood or not being in the “holiday spirit.”

Who we are

At The Dinner Party, we believe in embracing our feelings in all their complexity. We can’t separate the bitter from the sweet, and we wouldn’t want to. Often, it’s not the ache that’s the problem—it’s everything we do to cover that ache. So, as we seek to support friends who are struggling, our goal is not to aggressively push out sadness. Instead, we can help create new holiday traditions that allow our friends to honor old traditions if they choose. We can open our doors to those who could use a door to walk through. We can take steps to create more sweetness for the people we love.

A recipe for a great dinner party

Close your eyes. Imagine that you’ve just finished hosting dinner. The last guest has walked out the door. What do you want to feel in this moment? What kind of experience do you hope to have had?

If you want to host a great dinner party but you’re not sure where to begin, we’ve put together a recipe to help you get started. Much like family recipes passed down through the generations, you should feel free to add your own personal touches along the way. The most important thing is to have a clear idea about why you’re bringing people together and what feelings you hope your guests will take with them when they leave. Keep those goals in mind as you organize the evening. And don’t feel pressure to follow these instructions to the letter—additional zest and spice are always welcome!

Ingredients:

  • Good people
  • Good food (potluck-style)
  • Open hearts
  • Optional: Mixtape playlist, candles, flowers, ornamental gourds, soundtrack, and/or whatever you do to #makeitnice

Directions:

1. Create your guest list. Do you know someone who could use extra support this season? Offer to host a meal for that friend, so they can be with their favorite people without having to do the work. Or simply invite a mix of friends in high and low spirits. Explain that you want to create a space for reflection and restoration, free from the pressure of having to keep your spirits relentlessly high.

2. Figure out the menu. If you love cooking and want to whip up the entire feast on your own, that’s terrific. If not, consider a potluck, which can be a great way to bring people together, especially if you invite your guests to make dishes that hold special meaning for them: a favorite family recipe or holiday staple; a popular food where they grew up; a dish that ties them to people who have passed away. (Be sure to check with guests about their dietary preferences and restrictions, too.)

3. Welcome everyone and set the context. Briefly explain your intention in opening your doors and the kind of evening you hope to create together. You may want to introduce a few guiding principles for the conversation (see ground rules below), especially if the members of the group don’t already know each other or if you’re worried someone might start to dominate the conversation.

4. Make personal introductions. At the start of the meal, have everyone share their name and a few sentences about how they’re feeling right now: what they’re grateful for, dreading, longing for, etc. As the host, you should share first.

5. Go over the ground rules for true sharing and listening. Stick with “I” statements, and remember that no two stories are the same—your experience is yours, so please honor and respect that others’ experiences are theirs. Being there is participating—no one is under pressure to talk if they don’t want to. And keep it confidential. What people say at dinner stays at dinner.

6. Pick a conversation starter. For many of us, the holidays are among those rare days when our appetite for earnestness exceeds our appetite for snark. These conversation starters can help you embrace that spirit. Choose the ones that speak to you. You might try putting all of the questions in a bowl at the center of the table and inviting guests to pick them one at a time. You may even find that entire conversations unfold naturally after just one question and there’s no need to move on to the next. When that happens, let it.

  • Which memory do you wish you could relive?
  • What makes you feel deeply alive?
  • What’s the best lesson you’ve ever been taught, and by whom?
  • Where or from whom did you learn to stand up for the things you believe in?
  • Describe a moment of kindness that really meant something to you.
  • Whose friendship have you depended on this year?
  • Who in your life have you forgiven? Whose forgiveness do you long to ask for?
  • What conversation do you wish you could have had differently?
  • What’s your favorite holiday memory?
  • How do you recharge during the holidays?
  • How do you practice compassion for yourself when you are overwhelmed?
  • Where is your sanctuary?
  • What did you learn this year?
  • What have you been surprised by this year?
  • What is one thing you want to learn in the coming year?

7. Let the conversation flow organically—but also be ready to keep it moving. Resist trying to control the discussion. People may cry. Hopefully, they’ll laugh. Go with it—all of it. And have a couple of topics ready in case the conversation lags.

8. Consider incorporating a special toast or ritual. If you want to start your conversation on a contemplative note, consider a hand-washing ritual. Pass a bowl of water and a hand towel around the table. Have each person wash their hands, then hold the bowl for the next person. Feel grateful for all the hands that helped to prepare this meal, for the hands that helped to raise and shape us, and for the work of our hands in all that we do. Then have everyone open their hands as an expression of gratitude as they prepare to eat and get to know each other.

Toasts are also a great way to kick off a conversation. Consider a toast that serves as a tribute: “Let’s raise our glasses to the people we wish could be here tonight: people who have left a positive mark on our lives that we continue to carry with us.” Then have each person say that name out loud if they so desire. It can be powerful to say and hear a name that rarely gets mentioned. You can invite everyone to light a candle and share the name of a person who inspires courage in them—living or dead, famous or familial—and why.

9. End the gathering with a group reflection. At the end of dinner, take a moment of silence around the table. Consider leading your guests through a meditation. This one is based on a type of compassionate meditation known as Tonglen. As Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun and teacher, describes it, “You breathe in with the wish to take away suffering, and breathe out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to people, animals, nations, or whatever it is you decide.”

Breathe in fear for someone whose future feels uncertain. Breathe in loneliness for someone who feels isolated. Breathe in frustration for someone who feels misunderstood.

Then, breathe out with the desire to relieve those who are suffering and give them extra strength, love, compassion, and understanding. Breathe out health, love, family, support, and forgiveness. Breathe out all of the things we try to hold on to or try to achieve for ourselves. Give them away. Imagine breathing out beautiful, heart-shaped breaths. In the midst of our sadness, where we are tempted to isolate ourselves or feel alone and misunderstood, we can give love to others simply through the breath. Sometimes it may be all we have to give.

Additional ideas: activities we love

A 2014 study by researchers at Harvard found that people who had found a way to heal after a period of profound grief were not the ones who’d attempted to entirely move on.1 They were the people who had discovered and embraced what the researchers called “personal rituals.” Most of these rituals were done in private and had nothing to do with religion. Most existed outside the bounds of anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Days, and Father’s Days. And most were extremely personal, related somehow to the person they’d lost or their relationship.

The lesson here is clear: the more we try to bury something, shove it under the rug, and move on, the more space it takes up in our lives. Moving forward actually means embracing a new reality, without letting go of the people and experiences that shaped who we are. These activities can help your dinner guests start that process.

  • Bring a reading: Invite guests to bring a reading (a poem, a quote, a song lyric) that has inspired or strengthened them over the last few months. Read it together, and allow the words to wash over you. Share whatever reactions are stirred up.
  • Create place cards where people can fill in the blank: "Ask me about…." As host, encourage people to fill in a loved one’s name. Or it can be a free-for-all: “Ask me about… my day, that time I met Lin-Manuel Miranda in a lunch line, my cat, etc.” The host can kick off the dinner by asking people to share what they wrote.
  • Create an altar: Have everyone bring a photo or an object that’s meaningful to them: something that activates their senses, conjures a place or a person, or reminds them of the touch of a hand, the sound of a voice, a moment in which they felt fully alive. Add flowers, photographs, candles, sweets, fabric, mementos, found treasures, or favorite foods to the altar. Then, invite everyone to share the story of the object they brought.

Endnotes

  1. Gino, Francesca, and Michael I. Norton. “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no. 1 (2014): 266-272.