Until her senior year of college, Carla Fernandez could talk to her friends about anything — jobs, dating, trips they hoped to take. Then something happened that changed the tenor of those conversations. Fernandez's father, a vintner, was diagnosed with brain cancer. After college, she spent a year back home in the Bay Area, caring for him until he died.
"Suddenly there was no response on the other end of the line," says Fernandez, now 27. She is sitting in the Analog Room of enso, the Santa Monica advertising agency she helped found, which focuses on campaigns with a positive social impact. Hand-drawn pictures cover the walls, atmospheric shoegaze music drifts in from the communal workspace, and her little rescue dog, Biscotti, stretches out at her feet.
After losing her father at such a young age, Fernandez found herself coping not just with grief but also with quaking existential questions that most of her friends had never considered. Bereavement groups felt too clinical — a circle of metal folding chairs with a box of tissues. She tried reading books on grief and Tibetan philosophy. "I didn't want to go back to normal," Fernandez says. "My life had expanded. I wanted to use this experience to live better."
There is something uniquely millennial about Fernandez's approach to coping with grief — a sense of disruption, a determined pluck. She uses terms such as "activate" and "necessity breeds invention," talks about "branding" grief so that young workaholics, like her, can create a space for it. She didn't find anything in the grief industry that resonated with her.
In 2010, Fernandez assembled a group of four other Angelenos — all in their 20s, all who'd recently lost a parent, all strangers — for a dinner party at her Echo Park home. She made arroz con pollo and served a Spanish table wine from her father's winery. There was only one guideline: No giving advice. The women shared stories for four hours and all fell asleep on Fernandez's bed like a pile of puppies.
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It was the first time Fernandez didn't feel isolated by her experience with loss. It was therapeutic but also intimate, communal. Within a few years, Fernandez and Lennon Flowers, another founding member, had turned their private coping system into a networked nonprofit — The Dinner Party: Life After Loss.
Today, there are dinner parties in 21 cities, and more than 350 people have attended. In a December Indiegogo campaign, The Dinner Party raised $30,000 that they'll put toward developing a new web platform to connect people, training hosts for 100 new tables and launching an event series on personal rituals and storytelling around loss.
It's been five years since Fernandez's father died, and she still meets with her original dinner party, though they don't talk that much about loss anymore. They go for hikes, talk about their jobs — basically, they're just a group of good friends with a shared experience. In the end, Fernandez is a social entrepreneur spearheading something distinctly analog, something elemental — a way to commune, to share something, to know someone.