The Dinner Party helping young Colorado adults grieve

Rey Sosa felt the weight of loneliness after losing his mother to COVID-19 in July 2020.

The 26-year-old Englewood resident started looking for a community for grief support. He signed up for an online group but found himself to be the only person younger than 50, the only man and among others mourning the loss of their cat or job.

Sosa said he didn’t want to minimize anyone’s pain, but losing his only living parent at 26 felt like a far different experience than losing a job.

“The grief wasn’t the same,” Sosa said. “I walked away thinking this is a very alienating experiencing. I didn’t think there were people who could relate.”

Young adulthood can be an especially isolating age to handle such a loss, experts said. The Dinner Party, a national grief network made up of young adults with a Colorado component, targets the issues facing that demographic.

“I was the first person in my peer group to lose someone in my life,” said 25-year-old Aggie Fitch, communications manager for The Dinner Party, whose brother died in a motorcycle accident when she was a senior in high school. “People had lost a grandparent they weren’t close to or a pet and tried to equate things, and that can really hurt and your peers just don’t really have the words or know how to show up for you the best they can. And what was most helpful for me was being around others who got it.”

People in their 20s and 30s can be among the first of their friends to go through a magnificent loss, meaning their typical support group might not know how to be there for them, said Alan Wolfelt, a Northern Colorado-based grief counselor and founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition.

“This age group is very much at risk for potential lack of support,” Wolfelt said. “Their peers are often developmentally experiencing high levels of assumed invulnaeralbity, the epitome of ‘I’m going to live forever.’”

Loss resources often are allocated toward children experiencing grief — camps or support through school — and typical bereavement groups gear toward older adults, Wolfelt said.

Sosa, along with more than 90 Coloradans and thousands nationwide, turned to The Dinner Party, a national organization with local groups providing grief support for people age 21 to 45 who have lost a significant person in their life. Some Dinner Party participants are paired in groups — virtual dinner parties for the time being because of COVID-19 — while others are paired one-on-one with a buddy anywhere across the world with a similar loss experience.

“A very common Dinner Party experience is being so excited that someone you’re meeting has this sad story of grief just like you but being sorry there’s a club, so it’s this thrill and sorrow,” Fitch said.

Elena Lopez Del Carril said she was impressed with the way The Dinner Party paired her with someone whose grief story so closely paralleled her own. That buddy lives in the United Kingdom, but their stories were similar: Their fathers died weeks apart this past summer, the 20-somethings are both the youngest in their families and live at home with their mothers.

Lopez Del Carril, a 23-year-old Broomfield resident, said having someone to talk with who understands what she’s going through has been a source of relief and comfort following her father’s death after a lung cancer diagnosis that led to a host of other health problems.

“For example, on my father’s birthday on Aug. 11th, none of my closest friends reached out to see how I was doing — not out of spite, but I think just from never experiencing this themselves in our 20s,” she said. “However, my grief buddy, knowing how hard it was going to be, did reach out. It’s little things like that that make me grateful for The Dinner Party.”

Lopez Del Carril said she talks with her new friend regularly every few weeks, usually for hour-long conversations, and they ping each other during rough days. Thoughts of her dad — an outgoing, loud Argentinian with a penchant for snazzy clothes — are constantly at the forefront of her mind, but she worries about burdening others with her grief or talking too much about him.

Lopez Del Carril said she knows her exuberant father who was always the life of the party would want her to enjoy her youth, but her grief has deeply changed her.

“I feel like I’m a middle-aged woman stuck in a 23-year-old body,” she said. “Right now, it’s really exhausting thinking of going out and my social battery is on low.”

Grief counselor Wolfelt said society often rushes those grieving to move on or get over it, and that many are uncomfortable and avoid addressing loss.

“We’re a mourning-avoidant, emotion-phobic culture,” Wolfelt said. “We give people three days off work or school, and it better be a biological, nuclear family relative who’s passed if we’re doing that. It’s often more important in our culture to get people back to work or school rather than them healing their soul.”

Laura McCommons, 40, said she had barely discussed losing her mom as a teen until she found The Dinner Party in 2019 shortly after moving from Florida to Colorado and looking for friendship. McCommons was searching online for a group offering get-to-know-you dinner parties with people in your community when she accidentally found The Dinner Party and realized it scratched an itch she’d been ignoring for decades.

“I never felt like I had anybody to reach out to who understood what I was going through,” McCommons said.

The Highlands Ranch resident showed up for her first in-person dinner before the pandemic worried others would judge her because her loss was years ago.

“They were so open and welcoming,” McCommons said.  “We all went around and shared our story. I bawled, and it was so weird for me because I thought I should be fine 25 years removed. Everyone else was crying. It was just incredible to be able to share and not feel the judgment society sometimes makes you feel — ‘Oh you should be over that by now.’”

Since her first meeting, McCommons said she has participated in virtual dinners with her group, been paired with a one-on-one buddy and met her crew for outdoor picnics so they could stay connected during the pandemic.

“This is such a great resource, and we’ve formed such great bonds,” McCommons said.

Wolfelt said “time heals all wounds” is a misguided phrase because the bereaved must engage in mourning and actively participate in their healing process rather than believe things will magically get better after a certain number of years.

Sosa said he is  working through his anger about COVID-19 and the loss of both parents at a young age with the help of his Dinner Party buddy and a mental health professional.

“This is not supposed to happen in your 20s,” Sosa said. “The assumption is we’re adults now, and we should know how to take care of ourselves, but I’d like to think if my parents were alive, I’d be asking them questions and utilize them and I don’t have that. I had to grow up really fast.”

Sosa and his grief buddy usually talk about their daily lives and updates, sometimes not even mentioning their grief.

“In our conversation, we know the story already so we don’t bring it up or we know the context,” he said. “That’s what makes these connections really impactful is there isn’t that awkward avoidance. We’re in the same place.”

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