This episodes explores a very personal and universal topic: grief. We explore the experience of grief at the individual level and then draw out the implications of society's relationship to grief and death for systems change.
Our guest for this episode is Carla Fernandez, co-founder of The Dinner Party, a platform for young adults who have lost someone close to them. The Dinner Party now operates in over 100 cities around the world and has been featured in media outlets such as NPR, CNN, and the New York Times. Carla is also a designer, facilitator, and strategist whose work brings creativity, joy, and connection to the roots of our most intractable problems. She is also currently writing a book called Renegade Grief.
In this episode Jenny and Carla discuss:
"Carla Fernandez (CF): When somebody dies, this portal opens. This moment in time presents itself where you are given that reflection that I think was presented in that last episode of, "Okay, let's pause. Let's stop all of the frantic rushing around, and trying to extend our life, and up level our status, and get more money, and get more popular and like all the shit that we're doing all the time." And let's ask, "But is this the quality that I'm longing for?"
[00:00:34] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Carla Fernandez, co-founder of The Dinner Party, a platform for grief that supports people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And this is the Denizen podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.
In this episode, we're talking about grief. A very personal and raw topic for me as I lost both my parents last year. But it actually ties to last week's episode on post-growth economics. Donnie, if you listen to it at the very end, he said, "I'm actually really inspired by what happens when we tend to the grief of what's going on right now. And we slow down. And we sit with the tragedies that are unfolding. And that actually have been unfolding for thousands of years in many cultures around the world and hundreds of years in others. When we explore what's good, they can be nurtured so that you can hospice this dying system and emerge in a way that is really genuinely in harmony with life itself.”
And so, this conversation is about grief. We start talking about it from our personal experience and some of the insights that we had from going through that. What the gaps were that Carla identified in setting up The Dinner Party. But then we go into the systems conversation that really links to what Donnie was getting at.
Carla, our guest for this episode, co-founded The Dinner Party. She lost her father in her 20s. And as a consequence of that, she got together five friends over dinner who had also lost someone very close to them, to talk about their experience. And the idea really struck a nerve. And it's grown to nearly 100 cities around the world since then. Connected more than 13,000 people and been covered in many media outlets, including NPR, CNN and the New York Times.
In addition to her work at The Dinner Party, Carla is also an experienced designer, a facilitator, and a community strategist who focuses on projects that bring creativity, joy and connection to the roots of our most intractable problems. Her clients span foundations, government agencies and private companies where the common thread is a drive to repair or restore part of their industry or community. She's also currently writing a book called Renegade Grief.
I love conversations like this that are grounded in personal experiences that we can all relate to but then tie them to this big systems conversation that we're having. As always, you can find our show notes on our website. There you can also subscribe to our newsletter. We bring our weekly content to your inbox alongside announcements from our partners. Subscribers are also invited to join the Denizen community in our online home, The Den, and participate in our online and in-person events. That is www.becomingdenizen.com. And I hope you enjoy this conversation with Carla and me. It's a very personal one. I couldn't talk about my parents' death without crying. I hope it touches you and inspires you at the same time.
[00:03:16] JS: Carla, thank you so much for being here.
[00:03:19] CF: Yeah, of course, Jenny. It's a pleasure.
[00:03:20] JS: What we're going to do is we're going to first have a conversation about grief at the individual level and draw some insights from our personal experiences. And then we're going to zoom out to grief at the collective level and the implications for the system change conversations. And I actually find that these particular types of conversations tend to really land for people because it's rooted in something that they can really touch in their everyday life experiences. Let's start with our personal experiences of grief.
[00:03:49] CF: Great. I'm thinking Jenny, too, to be part of the backdrop for this conversation on a personal level is that we've been kind of circling one another in social circles for the last few years. And then it was at the memorial services for a mutual friend of ours where we actually found ourselves in the same room and started to plan this moment together. But I'm always amazed at the ways that the universe mysteriously works and how life imitates art and art imitates life. And I'm so happy to talk with you about this because it is not an interview in the hypothetical or a conversation about grief in the abstract. But our relationship has really become more consistent in the lens of this and the celebration of life of someone who was important to both of us. And then was followed by your own cascading year of grief and very intense grief initiation. I just want to second the fact that this isn't let's sit around and hypothesize and think smart thoughts. But rather, this is a living, breathing experience that we both and so many other people right now are going through and feels really important to make the time to unpack it.
[00:04:53] JS: I love it. Let's talk about how it was for us, right? What struck you when you lost your dad? What surprised you about that experience that you might not have been anticipating?
[00:05:05] CF: Yeah. I was 21 when my dad died of cancer. And it was about 13 years ago. I've had a minute to make meaning of what happened and reflect on it in many different ways. And the thing that really struck me was that, at the time I was a student at NYU and was studying social entrepreneurship, as I'm sure a lot of people who are part of the Denizen community are familiar with, and was really interested in this idea of how can new creative entrepreneurial ideas be applied to solve some of the social problems that are vexing us. And so much of the energy was going towards fair trade, sustainability and the buzzwords of that Obama hope and change moment.
And then when my dad got sick with cancer and I became one of his caretakers, and moved in with him and then when he died about a year after that diagnosis, I remember looking around the landscape of grief and loss and found myself really surprised that from where I sat, at least in the world, there was such little resourcing available. And I understand why that is now a little bit better from a systems level. But many of the books on the bookshelves were published in the 80s. And there was a grief support group through the hospice that we used. But I went to it and it was this circle of metal folding chairs under fluorescent lighting and was like the last place I wanted to have this what felt like a really sacred conversation about end of life and navigating grief.
And I just was struck by the ways in which because of the death-denying culture that we live in, there had been so little innovation, fresh energy, and creativity pumping into this corner of our culture. And part of that absence or empty space was what inspired me to start hosting these dinners for other youngish people who'd experienced a significant loss, where we could gather and talk about our grief experiences but do it in an environment that felt warm, and human and like the kind of place that you actually wanted to show up on a Friday night. And didn't feel like – it didn't feel like an obligation or I should do this. But felt like something to desire. That was one thing, this lack of investigation and innovation that was happening in that space.
And the other thing that I noticed was I was in a fortunate situation in that I grew up in a safe community where, when my dad died at 21, that was the first person who I had ever had to really say goodbye to. I now know and have reflected a lot on the privilege with which it takes for me to say that and that there's a lot of communities where grief is a part of every day from day one.
But I was surprised by the ways in which so many of my peers just really didn't have the vocabulary, or comfort, or confidence in themselves to be able to ask me the questions or sit with me in the grief. And I had really amazing friends, but they hadn't experienced the death of a parent. And in many ways, we had gone through every rite of passage hand-in-hand up until that point. But in this moment, I felt kind of unmoored and like I was out at sea and they were waving it to me from the shore. But it wasn't something that we could go through together. It became really important to me really quickly to find other people who are in my kind of age group and my phase in life who could say the words, "Me too." And we now know how transformative those two simple words can be. Those are a couple of things that I remember being like, "God damn. There's a lot of work to do here." And what about you?
[00:08:37] JS: Well, first of all, I want to reflect that I think you said a word that I think is really a big one here, which is unmoored. And I think this may be more specific to the loss of a parent than other very close contacts. I said this when I lost my dad. It was like I lost the anchor that I didn't even know existed because it's been there forever, right?
[00:08:57] CF: Yup. It's a constant.
[00:08:58] JS: Right? And so, there was for me, just like I don't even know how to ground. And I had a very intense draw to slow down, and ground and center. It was like okay, "I need –" There's a couple of things here. One was that, for me, there was just such utter shock to the system. But I didn't know what the fuck was going on. And I think that the loss of someone that close to you for me was like – I lost my dad, which was huge because my dad and I were so close. And I lost him in a way that was very traumatic.
And so, I was just really reeling from the shock of that and hadn't even begun to process it. I mean, I realized in retrospect I didn't even really begin to process it until six months out. It was still like a shock and a stupor. And then five days before his funeral, I found out my mom had months to live. And so, my grieving for him was immediately crowded to the margins showing up for my mother who was then dying of terminal cancer.
And I'm an only child. Thankfully, they're both remarried and I have step parents that were there in the day-in, day-out. But there were not other siblings to step in and carry that. Nor were there other siblings to share in the magnitude of that emotional experience.
And so, I think a couple of things for me in my own experience that were like aha insights was how incapacitated I was as a human being in my physiology with an emotional experience of that magnitude. I had days where I was brought to tears just thinking about packing up my suitcase and getting to the airport to fly somewhere. I just couldn't.
I had days where I tried to get out of bed and I just wandered around in circles and just got back in bed. It was so incapacitating for me. That was like, "Well, I wasn't expecting that." Right? And I was in this stupor of I don't even know – I haven't even begun to realize what happened. Like you said, it's rbeen 13 years, I've had a chance to figure it out. It's been a little over a year since my dad died. I'm just starting to integrate that, right? That was one, was just how incapacitating it was, right?
And I think, also, when you speak about the isolation of it, right? And I think, partially, this is inherent in the experience to some extent because your grief is so singular. And to you, I mean, you have this great quote on the website that said, "Grief is just that it's yours." Right? Or in Grief is Praise, Martin Prechtel talks about the strange trance-like place that happens after someone close dies, right?
And so, I think that there's an inherent isolation that comes from how that's so just your thing, right? But also, for me, I wanted to retreat to my cave. Even to my closest friends. Let alone my acquaintances. Like, "How are you?" "Well, my parents just died." And then they're just like, "Oh, my God. That's –" They don't even know what to make of that, right? And that becomes an uncomfortable thing.
I remember my stepdad, he didn't go out and socialize because people would inevitably ask and then he was forced to have that conversation. And so, I think there's some both as a consequence of our discomfort with challenging emotions as a society.
We talked about this a little bit in the non-violent communication conversation, like our tendency to want to make it go away versus just understanding that this is part of the human experience. And it's okay to be sad. Of course, you're going to be sad. You just lost your dad. And not having the capability of just sitting with someone and witnessing and holding their sadness.
I thought a lot about also, “How does one process this in a healthy way?” And I surrendered to it really. And I thought about not having a layer of resistance to the reality that my parents are dead. And how do I accept that and try to hold gratitude for all that they've given me in the relationships I've had in my life?
And so, I tried to really sit in that and just really give space for grief to come up whenever it came up, whenever I needed to sit with it. I started journaling every day. I had a meditation practice. I walked in the wilderness. This hardcore self-care / give space to grieve took hold for me in that space as well. But in contrast, my step parents would be like, "I'm keeping myself busy so I don't have to deal with it." Or even just labeling today was a bad day. It's not bad that you're feeling this. It hurts. But of course, it hurts.
And so, I was just doing a lot of thinking about our competence emotionally both individually and as a collective around these really hard human experiences, which I think grief of a parent is just something really extreme in that case.
[00:13:43] CF: Absolutely. Yeah, one of the people whose work I'm most fired up, ready to go about right now is a scientist named Mary-Frances O'Connor. She's a neuroscientist. And she's part of what I'm sure is a group of people. But she has some of the leading research in a book that came out recently called The Grieving Brain, where she's actually doing fMRI scans of brains of people who are grieving to create data around the reality that this isn't just a, "Oh, you're sad." And this isn't just like a mood, or a feeling, or a “pull it together.” There's a neurochemical biological reaction that's coursing through someone's body when someone has died that is just as real as any other kind of physical – I don't want to use the word illness, but like physical reaction.
And when we think about the systems change on how do you create a more supportive culture for people who are grieving, how do we resource this work better? One of the pieces of the puzzle that it has been missing is this scientific evidence that we need to treat grief as a public health indicator. And this isn't just like, "Oh, you poor thing. You're having a bad day." But there's something happening in the biochemistry of your body that requires tending to.
The fact that you were having a hard time packing the suitcase wasn't like, "Oh, Jenny, she's really losing it." It was like, yeah, there was something happening inside of your brain that you couldn't control that you needed to be present for.
What's exciting to me about that research coming out – I mean, there're so many different pieces of the puzzle that have to come together. But it gives us at least the data to allow for more ammunition in the policy discussions around mandated bereavement leave and getting access to subsidized insurance covered therapy and mental health support for people who are grieving.
And so, on the personal level, before we geek out about the systems change piece, the personal thing that I want to share with you is, yeah, the experience you were having was the body doing this beautiful thing it does, which is make sense of this completely incomputable reality of a constant in our world suddenly disappearing.
[00:15:51] JS: Yeah. Yeah. And I think – and we'll touch on this. It's just like the general discomfort with death exacerbates that.
[00:15:58] CF: Yes, 1,000%.
[00:16:00] JS: Yeah. And I think another really big insight that I had in going through this was that – and I think this is – I saw my aunt go through this when she lost her husband. There's the grief of the loss. But there's also the trauma of the death. Whether it be that you lost them suddenly and you weren't expecting it and you couldn't be there. Like what happened with my dad, right? Or the trauma of literally witnessing my mother die over the course of days. Watching her slowly and slowly and slowly until she took her last breath. And it was profound. But there was just a lot of trauma in that of witnessing that and being close.
And I felt, with my mom, it actually was really important for me to be in it. There's something very beautiful and poetic about ushering her out in the same way that she ushered me in. And it became a ceremony. But it was still fucking traumatic to be like, "Wow. I rocked my mom's body from side to side as it got stiffer and stiffer every day and changed her diapers." Right? I think that we don't fully appreciate that there's a trauma piece as well as a grief piece associated with these experiences.
Yeah, go ahead.
[00:17:09] CF: Can I ask a question about that?
[00:17:12] JS: Yeah.
[00:17:12] CF: In this year, how do you feel like have you been able to tease apart those two flavors of the experience of the thing that feels like trauma and the thing that feels like grief? And I wonder how you've tended to them differently, if at all?
[00:17:29] JS: I mean, I think with grief, it's been really just surrendering, right? As I mentioned, it's just like I'm just surrendering. I realize I stepped back into life prematurely to like, "Oh. Oh, I'm at my mom's funeral. And then I'm going to go back to work." I was like, "Oh, no, no." And I even stepped back into work prematurely over the summer. And I realized, "No. I need to let myself have this container until I hit a year from her death," which will happen in March. And just give my psyche capacity for that processing to happen, right?
For grief, it's just been full-on surrender and a practice of acceptance. And I think you go to these fundamental teachings of Eastern philosophy, which says that our resistance to reality creates so much suffering. For me, it was a very big spiritual practice and experience of living that, in my grieving process and surrendering to it.
I think on the trauma side, I just think there was really interesting personal growth for me in self-compassion in what happened with my dad. Because I really hated myself that I wasn't there. I literally just hated myself the night that he died, right? And I was like – my best friend was like, "You can't think that."
And I looked back at – I knew I'd cry at some point. I just look back at the decisions that I made that led me to not be there. And I made them with imperfect information. But I reflected back and judged myself based on perfect information. And it was just like, "How did I let it happen that I wasn't there for my dad?"
And we talked about this in the nonviolent communication, the inner critic. The way that we talk to ourselves and the way that we don't have compassion for ourselves. In nonviolent communication, we talk about how every behavior comes from some deeper human need, right? What was the need that was led me to make the decisions that I made? And can I forgive myself for that? And can I accept that like, of all relationships in my life, the most important person to me? Like, I wasn't there. I watched him die on fucking FaceTime.
And I think anything that we might do in life where we – and I think I'm just generally – and a lot of us are. We're just hard on – we're really hard on ourselves when we're not perfect, right? And I think it's just such an important lesson to learn to have some compassion for yourself. And that you're not a bad person. You did your best. And how do you learn from it and move on? That was just I think a piece of personal growth that came from the trauma.
And I would also just say I felt somewhat grateful for just the extremity of the crucible. I felt like it prematurely matured me. I'm not sure I was ready at 43. Ram Dass talks about this in Walking Each Other Home. It matures you spiritually. It's like a rite of passage, right? And I felt like that happened earlier than I was ready for it.
I journaled a lot too. That really helped me in my emotional processing to just write every day, what came up. That was really supportive. But for me, I was really inclined to go inwards and kind of do it on my own, right? And The Dinner Party is really addressing the value and doing it in community. And I want to turn to that next. But for me, it was very personal. And my instinct was to just be like, "Babe, just take care of the kids so that I can hole up in a cabin in the woods with my journal, and do meditation, and walk and just be in my own personal spiritual ceremony around this rite of passage.”
[00:20:53] CF: Snaps to your husband and to the people who can hold it down so that we can go to the metaphorical or literal cabin in the woods when we need to.
[00:21:01] JS: But I would also say, when people would ask me, "How can I support you?" And this is a good segue to The Dinner Party. When people would say, "How can I support you?" I would say, like, "Just check in on me. I may not respond. But just reach out and say, "Hey, I'm thinking about you."
Because it just made me feel less alone, that somebody cared and was thinking about me and asked. I didn't necessarily need them to hold space. But I felt less alone knowing that people cared.
[00:21:34] CF: This is maybe the combo package of talking about The Dinner Party but many people know the statistics about how in many ways we're shifting away from religious institutions and communities where, historically, the work of tending to grief has happened. And whether you like religious institutions and that's helpful for you. Or whether you, like in the case of my dad, experienced abuse in the context of religious tradition and institutions. Regardless of what your relationship to it is, there is a lot of wisdom there that we can absorb.
And I've been talking to a friend of mine who's a Sufi mystic. And she's been teaching me about the Janazah prayer, which is a prayer recited at every Muslim funeral, at every Islamic funeral. And it's a forgiveness prayer. Forgiving the person who died. Forgiving the people who are surviving the person who died. And nowhere in my experience of my dad's passing was forgiveness mentioned, except for maybe one-on-one in therapy only after I did some excavation. And I wonder how the world might feel different if whenever something was coming to an end, whether it's a life, or a relationship, or a business partnership, or any of the things that we have to come to terms with that is ending, what if part of that was taking the time to forgive?
And even asking whether or not you're ready to let it go and apologize or accept the forgiveness that might need to be forgiven at some point down the road? And so, powerful for you to introduce that and the ways in which you've had to forgive yourself for not being able to predict the future and be somewhere that in hindsight would have been good but it wasn't in the cards.
I think that's something for the people who are listening to hold is like where could forgiveness show up in your own relationship to grief? Whether it's someone who has physically left the planet and anything else that you've had to learn how to let go of.
[00:23:31] JS: Well, again, and I think this is so important in this inquiry just to punctuate that. It's something to bold, italicize and underline, right? Is that when we talk about healing collective trauma and intergenerational trauma, coming to terms with the harms that we perpetuated, that we are a part of and we continue to be a part of, out of ignorance. And we come into awareness of those things. Having the capacity to forgive, I think it's a really potent point. And I'm really glad you raised it again.
[00:24:02] CF: And I'm learning how to do that. How to forgive myself. How to ask for forgiveness when I am realizing when I've been perpetuating horror more than a part of a problem that maybe I wasn't aware of in a way that I could have been. And, yeah, I feel like that's one of the sub – you double click on the grief school. That is one of the sub classes that many of us really kind of get schooled in and can really be like a pathway to release, in many ways, freedom through that process.
[00:24:35] JS: Yeah. Yeah. And you made another really important point that I want to make sure that we underscore, which we've also talked about in some of our prior conversations, which is what did we lose with the loss of religion? The decline of religion? What did we lose, right? And there was something in the place of community and the atomization of society now, right?
And so, I think that that's a really important point. And that's a great segue to The Dinner Party, which I think really is.. In design thinking we have this practice where you go to an extreme user to reveal a universal need. If you want to design a better suitcase, go talk to pilots and stewardesses, right? Because for them, there's a need that's really at the surface because they use it so much more than the average person. But it actually reveals a universal need that's just not close to the surface for everybody else, right? That's how the rolling suitcase was conceived.
And so, I think that this experience of grief, this extreme experience of grief, when it's someone really close to you is actually the extreme use case that is revealing a broader social need around community, and connection and cohesion. And I know that's such an important theme of The Dinner Party.
Let's first talk about the dinner party and then let's segue into the systems conversation. I'd just love to hear a little bit more about – The Dinner Party is addressing this issue of isolation, which is exacerbated by our discomfort with death and our discomfort with difficult emotions. And your mission is to transform some of our hardest conversations and most isolating experiences and just the sources of community support, candid conversation and forward movement. Let's tell us about what you've learned as this organically became a thing.
[00:26:15] CF: We actually started the work in 2010, which is crazy. Because somehow that's now 13 years. But in many ways, a lot of attention came to our organization when the pandemic started. Because, finally, we couldn't culturally deny the fact that grief was hard because so many people were going through it.
The organization started not like a lot of organizations start, where there's a business plan, and a strategy and a theory of change, which I'm sure is all Denizen community language. But I kind of had a Goldilocks experience of going to a traditional grief group for young adults. And it felt sort of infantilizing of the experience.
I remember we passed around a stuffed animal as a talking stick. Are you kidding me? I'm a sexually active, tax paying 21-year-old and I just watched my father die. And I don't really feel like I'm in the googly eyes phase of my life anymore. And can we not with that?
Of course, those were good people working hard to create a space that felt safe for people. But in the grief support world, there was sort of this gap. There were a lot of traditional grief support groups that were filled with people who were experiencing a loss at maybe a more "natural time in life." They were in their 60s. Losing their parents in their 80s. Or there was also a lot of innovation happening around grief support programs for kids. Camps where kids could go and do things that kids like to do but also talk about their grief and loss.
But in many ways, there was sort of this forgotten generation of people in their 20s to 40s who were too old for the teddy bear arts and crafts station. Although, honestly, that sounds great to me right now. And too young to sit in a group of people who already had families of their own and were through this sort of tumultuous second adolescence that 20s and 30s can often be for people.
And then I was in therapy, and that was great. But it was this – I remember asking my therapist, "Am I the only person you know who's going through this?" And she was like, "You know what's funny is I have about five or six other clients who sit in the exact same chair that you're sitting in and are asking for the exact same thing that you're asking for," which was other people my age who I could talk to about this in a context that didn't feel clinical and cold.
I ended up meeting up with people through the grapevine. Somebody from work. Somebody at a party who were all in my age range who lost a parent and invited them over to dinner one night at my place. Very much in the social experiment, art project salon, undercover supper club. What might happen if we actually talk about this thing that we were all really good at avoiding or changing the subject? Because to be a 21-year-old on a first date talking about how you were, to your point, changing your parents diapers a few months ago is not always easy to talk about.
[00:29:07] JS: Yeah, interestingly though, I actually didn't shy away from it when I – I mean, people who know me know I don't shy away from bringing up things that are hard or uncomfortable. Because it's just like this is life. It's okay that I'm crying. It's okay that this hurts. Let's talk about what can be insightful from the experience. But go on.
[00:29:25] CF: I needed a Jenny. Like a Jenny big sis when I was 21.
[00:29:29] JS: Well, my 21-year-old self did not have the wisdom to hold that.
[00:29:33] CF: There you go. I bet she did.
[00:29:34] JS: Yeah. Maybe.
[00:29:35] CF: Yeah. It was to be an initial dinner. And there were six of us. And it was a total – kind of freak social experiment. And it was fucking awesome. And for the first time we all got to talk not just about the person who had died. But how are you navigating work relationships and dating? And what's up with all the other family members who are also grieving? And what if you had a complicated relationship with the person that was gone? And how were you holding that when the world wants to just put them on a pedestal?
And we realized that we all had a lot of follow-up questions that we didn't have anywhere else we could go to unpack. And at the end of that night, we were like, "Cool. Something powerful is happening here. Let's do this on the regular." And that group kept meeting monthly without any big plans of building the movement or starting an organization. And words started to spread. And we started to get emails from friends of friends who were asking if they could join. And the therapist who I mentioned started to refer clients to us.
And it was funny because I worked in marketing at the time. That's my day job. I worked at a social impact marketing firm. And our whole reason for being was helping causes get people to care about them. And it was like how do you manufacture this awareness and excitement?
And in my nights and weekends building The Dinner Party, I was experiencing what happens when an idea is just so needed and culture that you can't keep the lid on it. And people find – like they see that signal and they're like, "Oh, finally. There's that thing that my heart has been longing for."
And so, we quickly had to figure out, "Okay, what does this look like when we're not in the room?" And this amazing, amazing woman, Lennon Flowers, was at that first dinner. And she became my co-founder. She's our Executive Director. I've said this a million times, if it wasn't for Lennon, I would have been like, "Cool, that was a fun art project to work on for a couple years." But she's like the army sergeant who's like, "No, bitch. We're going. We're doing this."
Lennon and I co-founded The Dinner Party after about a year or two of that first table meeting. And then it really became an exercise in community strategy. And how do you create a leaderless movement where there is a network of these small 5 to 15-person tables is what we called them? But, like, pods or cohorts. You could use a bunch of different words. And how do you create – how do you bring a group of strangers who apply online, submit an intake form in the middle of the night? And, fast forward, end up knocking at somebody's door who they've never met before in their neighborhood with a dish, a potluck dish in their hand, and help them feel comfortable enough to sit down and take their heart out of their chest and say, "This is who I am. And this is who I lost. And this is where I am today."
And so, it's been this fascinating study and community design. And when the pandemic hit, we freaked out because we knew that people were going to need this sort of space more than ever. And yet, the whole magic and the alchemy was about breaking bread, and serving family recipes to one another and meeting in-person. But our community – everybody did. Our community just quickly pivoted online. And it's like a whole other world that we can talk about is how this translated to a virtual space. But that's sort of the genesis.
And there's been – at the end of the day, the work isn't rocket science. It's bringing a group of people together who are all longing to talk about something that they don't feel like they have other spaces where they can readily go there and to create the kinds of relationships and connections that can hold the parts of our stories that are so important to talk about but are rarely invited out.
[00:33:20] JS: And I love this quote from your website. “We tend to think of community as an afterthought, a nice to have after we take care of the real work whether that's in education, or healthcare, or the like. But what if it's the reverse? What if we focus instead on collective care as the end goal?” And then this other quote, which I think is really interesting. I've seen it again and again. That, "System change and relational work go hand-in-hand. That our workplaces are only as healthy as our workers. That our individual well-being depends on our collective well-being, and our sense of belonging and our access to communities of care.”
It's really interesting actually. This ties to – as the needs have been revealed in the Denizen community who are collectively working on different pieces of the systems change puzzle. I asked this question of, "What brings you here? What keeps you here?"
And so, there's this one bucket that was really about, “Okay, we all have this life mission related to systems change. And when we put us all together in a container, I'm inspired and I'm hopeful. And I feel like we could actually do this and I have my piece of the puzzle." That was a piece of it, right?
But then there was a second piece of it, which is I'm not performative in my capacity professionally. Seen and held in all the ways that I'm human as I go through the human experience. And it's a community that helps me evolve and grow through that.
And what was actually really interesting was that I have a whole theory of change around modeling the system that we want to move towards. And we can talk about these lofty 30,000-foot institutional conversations. But there's a complementary part of our own inner work, right? And how do we embody and model that as a collective?
And so, Charles Eisenstein talks about this in his work. I don't know if you're familiar with his work. But Charles Eisenstein talks about how in what future do we want our leaders to not step out of their work priorities to show up for their dying parents? Right? Because sometimes we have this narrative, "Oh, my God, the fucking sky is falling. I can't do anything but work on saving the world."
And so, what helped me stop doing the work was this recognition that that is also the work. Modeling that I can step away from that to prioritize this and having the whole community support me in doing that was actually modeling the world that we want to move towards. Instead of one where my identity is so – and I even thought to myself. “if the whole thing dies on the vine, so be it." And I was just really proud of the way that we were able to show up in that way. And I think, to your point, build these deeper relational ties, which are essential. Again, seeing us and meeting us in our whole humanity as a foundation for working on the world's most important problems.
[00:35:51] CF: Totally. Yeah. And sometimes I think that the moments where we have to bow out or step down because we need to tend to our home or personal world. And those moments that I've experienced, it often creates opportunities for other people to step in and step into leadership in a way that wouldn't have been possible if the leaders were always white-knuckling the wheel. Not creating space for other people to step in.
We hope that we can create space for people to pitch in without there having to be some kind of personal crisis . But I'm proud of you for being clear that you needed to take space to take care of yourself. And here you are. And your podcast is awesome. And your website is looking beautiful. And this community is growing. And would that have been possible had you swept this massive experience under the rug?
And I think one of the things that bums me out the most about our lack of space to process grief is that there's a possibility for so much wisdom in it. And there's the possibility for so much, to your point from the Ram Dass book, spiritual up-leveling. Not that this is some performance accelerator, when our parents die, like, "Fuck that." Yeah, there's – if we don't give ourselves the space to kind of sit back and be like, "What was the medicine and this for me? How is this teaching me how I want to show up differently? Or what do I want to prioritize more clearly?" If we don't have that moment of reflection, then we're just going to continue to perpetuate patterns that are probably coming from a place of pain avoidance as opposed to actual purpose. And I wish we lived in a world where when someone had multiple lost experiences they were given the gift of a sabbatical to unpack what they went through.
[00:37:33] JS: There's two, really, I think interesting things here that I want to focus on for the rest of the conversation. I think one is that – I mean, to your point, stepping out made space for somebody else to step in. And I think this is living in a better acceptance and awareness of our interconnectivity in having organizations and systems that have that inherent adaptability to human needs, right?
And one of my philosophies organizationally with Denizen is I care for you as a whole human. You are not an instrument for your role here, right? And so, how do we create organizations that recognize our interconnectedness and have more adaptability to do the work? But do the work in which you're also holding care for the whole human.
I think that there's a very interesting thing to double click on here about interconnection and how the way that grief is handled now is reflective of a disconnection from. That there's very deep things about just if we're closer to our interconnection, it's really painful to see the reality of the world today. I want to double click on that.
But I think before I get there, I want to double click on a second really important point that you made, which is about grief and growth, right? Because in your vision statement, you say “We foresee a day in which people find amidst their deepest struggle the source of their deepest strength. We foresee a day in which those who live through loss, whatever its form, are recognized not as objects of pity but as better listeners, better leaders characterized by profound empathy, resilience, agency and commitment to living a life of meaning.”
I'd just like to hear quickly, because of time, just your reflections on grief, post-traumatic growth, or grief and growth in the ways that grief – and you've already touched on a little bit. But I just wanted to ask it explicitly. And then let's move on to this question of our default relationship to grief and how that's connected to interconnectedness? And how that's really inhibiting us collectively from addressing the greatest challenges that we face?
[00:39:32] CF: It's so funny. As you're mentioning this, I'm thinking about a quote from a book I'm reading right now by Jennette McCurdy. It's called I'm Glad My Mom Died. I'm sure listeners have seen it on their bookshelves. She's a comedian and wrote this really amusing memoir about her mom who she had a really complicated, unhealthy relationship with in her death from cancer.
And one of the lines in the book is she talks about how there are two types of people in the world. There are people who have known loss and there are people who have yet to no loss. And I remember when I was initiated into this club feeling that kind of before and after moment of like, "Okay, this is not a test. This is short. It is bitter and it is sweet. This being life."
And I don't – my dad died at 54. And if I'm lucky, I'll make it as long as he did. Hopefully I'll make it a couple decades later. But there was this sort of immediate realization that the taking for granted of a long life was no longer something that I had the option to choose. And with that came a sobering wake-up call of, "Okay, what am I here to do? How do I want to spend my time?"
I also remember, and I hear about this with other people too, the sort of – I remember getting a job at this media startup a couple months after my dad died in the sort of frantic urgency that everyone's running around with to deal with these client issues. And I'm like, "Literally, if no one is dying, that I'm not going to burn out." And that didn't mean I wasn't a hard worker. But it was sort of a –
[00:41:02] JS: What am I doing it for?
[00:41:03] CF: Yeah, exactly. We can solve these problems and not lose ourselves in the frantic catalyst nature with which so often we are living our lives. And yeah, I think about that David Foster Wallace speech about judging the guy who's driving around in the Hummer and not knowing if maybe they had been in a really bad car accident at one point. And driving the Hummer is the only way that they feel comfortable on the road. I think that experiencing a loss can kind of give us this empathy X-ray vision where behaviors that maybe we would judge or belittle suddenly could be connected to a story of loss. And we can hold them with a little bit more compassionate grace.
[00:41:42] JS: I mean, you're raising – yeah.
[00:41:44] CF: Yeah, go ahead.
[00:41:46] JS: You're just raising something really important. And I'm glad we didn't miss adding it to this conversation, which is how an acceptance of death can profoundly affect how we choose to live our lives. And actually, earlier in my career, I made some tough decisions to work less to be with my kids, which was very counter to the culture of what my identity is supposed to be about.
And the thing that I always fell back on at the end of the day more than anything else was actually a list of the regrets of the dying. And the first regret of the dying was “I wish I would have lived a life true to myself and not what others expected of me.” And I think that that speaks to just the stories about where our self-worth comes from, right? And how easy it is to get caught up in jobs that make us miserable because that gives us status or money in our bank account. Or chasing followers and now you're a slave to Instagram algorithms.
[00:42:41] CF: Awesome.
[00:42:42] JS: Yeah. And so, I think that staying close to death really, really helps us stay close to that gut intuition about what matters instead of being corrupted by the narratives that are so captured by capitalism in that. That's one. I don't know if you've seen Darren Aronofsky recently came out with a Disney+ series called Limitless with Chris Hemsworth? Have you heard of this?
[00:43:03] CF: I have. I've watched a couple episodes. And a friend of mine, Alua Arthur, who's a death doula, I know is in one of the episodes.
[00:43:09] JS: Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah. It's about how do you extend your life? And what are the things that you can do to live longer? And so, each episode is like fasting and cold exposure. And how do you increase your memory, right? And it gets so rooted in popular culture of cheating death, and cheating nature and self-optimization.
And then the last episode is about death with BJ Miller, who I've been talking to for a while about coming on this podcast as well. He does such important work around end of life. He takes Chris through a very embodied experience of his own death. And he does that death meditation with the death doula, who you're friends with. And Chris comes out of it just like, "Fuck. What am I doing? What am I doing? I have three kids. I'm so busy."
And so, it takes the audience through this arc of I came here because I'm also caught up into this narrative of, "How do I live longer?" And then you just get bonked in the head at the end. Wait a minute. You can live longer and completely – because you're so on your phone on Instagram not present with your kids who are sitting right in front of you actually miss out on life.
And I think one of the really interesting points that I think I encountered in Ram Dass or somewhere was, if you want to extend life, be present in the moment, and that moment will become infinite. And so, yeah. So, there's that.
[00:44:32] CF: Mic drop.
[00:44:34] JS: Yeah, totally.
[00:44:35] CF: And a lot of times people who I meet and ask what I do are kind of like “You sound like such a downer. Are you serious? You have parties where you talk about grief and dead people. Is that how you want to spend your life?”
And I'm a very – I'm not so goth. I'm a very glass half full kind of a person. I'm lucky to be wired that way. And the truth of why I am still so committed to this work and I'm spending this year writing a book about it, and I'm just all in on so many levels, is that when somebody dies, this portal opens. This moment in time presents itself where you are given that reflection that I think was presented in that last episode of, "Okay, let's pause. Let's stop all of the frantic rushing around, and trying to extend our life, and up level our status, and get more money, and get more popular and like all the shit that we're doing all the time. And let's ask, "But is this the quality that I'm longing for?"
And I think so many of our conversations start from the story of, "Okay, who was it? What happened?" But very, very quickly we move on. And part of the opening prompt for every dinner is, where are you at right now? What's going on in your life today? This week? No more repeating the story that you have on autopilot about the night that it happened, or the diagnosis, or the death. But in what way is the medicine of grief showing up in your life in this present moment? And how can you sit in a circle of people who aren't going to tell you what to do? They're going to witness you as you get clear on what the right answer is for yourself.
And then they're going to fill up your wine glass and serve you some cake that somebody brought to the dinner. And it's going to feel warm. It's going to feel like an environment that isn't like where you're doing your homework but you're actually opening up to the essence of your own humanity.
[00:46:29] JS: Well, this really makes me think of some of the stuff that came out in the non-violent communication work too. We connect in our humanness. And so, bearing witness to what's up for someone and holding that space and feeling that with them and not being alone in that experience, that is the foundational building blocks of human connection. And sometimes it's like I don't want you to fix it. I just want you to be with me in it.
And with things like grief that are uncomfortable, we immediately go to fixing. Let me give you a different narrative that makes it less painful, right? How can I help you? Instead of just like, "No. You actually just need to let this emotion play out to process it in a way that doesn't just store it in your body to be dealt with later. And I will bear witness to it and hold you in it and let that pass." Right?
But I think this dovetails into another really important point that I wanted to get to, which is the discomfort with those emotions. And then we avoid it, right? And death avoidance in general, right? And Joanna Macy's work I think is really interesting. If we really allow ourselves to feel our interconnectedness, it's incredibly painful to be aware of and confront the state of the world today.
In a Joanna Macy discussion, she said “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present with what's happening in the world.” And the author who in the piece I read says, "For me, the price of admission into that was to allow my heart to break. And I saw how, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crisis despair, there were transformations into clarity of vision and collaborative action.”
Back to Joanna Macy, “It brings new ways of seeing the world freeing us from our assumptions and attitudes that threaten the continuity of life on earth.” And Joanna Macy also says, "I look at the path that we're on to the future as having a ditch on either side. On one side, there's panic and hysteria. And on the other side, there's paralysis and shutdown." And how do we learn as a collective to allow ourselves to feel that in order to enable us to act? And if we can't allow ourselves to feel, we're going to stay in this state of just having our heads in the ground and continuing to buy more shit and put it in landfills. And not have to be confronted by our complacency in the extent to which we're complicit in these things by virtue of our day-in, day-out behaviors. I'm just curious about your thoughts on just that piece of it, like grief and discomfort with it. And how that's inhibiting the systems conversation?
[00:49:04] CF: Yeah, it's such an important part of this. I really think that grief is not just something that we experience when somebody dies. It's something that we start experiencing. And this is something that Martin Prechtel talks about from the moment we leave our mother's womb, our whole life is a recognition of the bitter sweetness of letting go of places that felt like home, or people who felt like home, or ways of life that felt like home.
And so, there's something in the when we experience a death loss, which to your point from earlier, is this super user use case. That it's an important time to take the time to learn how to live with work with befriend that cascade of emotions. Because if we can do it there, it gives us more musculature to conceive the other things that we're going to be grieving, have already been grieving, but maybe haven't been aware of.
Our mutual friend Amelia Rose Barlow and I did a really cool – We thought it was really cool. It might sound dorky to other people. But we did a prototype of what would happen if we took this dinner party structure and applied it to another type of loss experience, particularly eco grief. And had a couple different experimental dinners where we were bringing people together to talk about, in one situation, the loss of a particular place, the Columbia River gorge in Portland that had been really devastated by some fires. And then another dinner that was on the eve of the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. And it was a combination of climate funders.
But maybe more interestingly, no offense to the funders, were frontline workers who were dealing with endangered, or near endangered, or near extinct species. And how do you show up to the real head out of the sand reality of the state of our planet? And what is it like when that's the job you're doing every day? And I bet a lot of people in the Denizen community can resonate with.
[00:50:59] JS: Yeah. Have you ever heard of Margaret Klein Salamon? Are you familiar with her work?
[00:51:04] CF: No, I'm not.
[00:51:04] JS: Her work really focuses on the grief that one experiences as one steps into the work. And that being such an inherent part of the infrastructure that's available to do this work is really understanding and holding the profundity of the emotional experience if you're going to really do it.
[00:51:19] CF: And I think that quote that you read of how do you walk down on the path where on one side is despair and on one side is paralysis and stay in this holy tightrope of keeping your head up, and being a part of the solution and not numbing out 24/7? Maybe we numb out like an hour a day. Not 24 hours a day. I don't know. I don't have some grand solution at the end of this other than like this is what we're all figuring out. And I think that's why the peer support piece is so fucking important because we need places where we can go to be like, "Oh, that got me." Or, like, how are you – Jenny, you are journaling and you're really prioritizing time alone. Cool. Maybe I need to try a little bit of that. Or this milestone is coming up and I'm kind of needing some support around how do I memorialize the year anniversary of my mom's passing, for example? Or that kind of request that you named earlier of like, "Hey, I just need somebody. They'll check in on me just so I know that there's a hand reached out even if I am not in the space to be able to reach back and hold it."
Yeah, to me, there's no silver bullet or solution other than this is the work of our generation. And yet, having people who we are in it with is definitely a part of what it means to live not only healthy, but the healthy life. But just to stay alive these days.
[00:52:39] JS: Yeah. And I think, again, this – to go back to the insights that I've had in the community here of why are people here? They're here to be whole humans and held in their own personal growth and evolution. And the importance of recognizing that we have to see each other as whole humans in our work and not instruments for the role that we're playing in saving the world is such an important part of just that cultural rethink in how we hold each other in the world. Instead of this bifurcation. It's just business. It's not just business. These are humans and these are emotions. And let's make space for them. And we've talked about “How do we create a caring economy?” And I think this is doing that. So good. This has been so amazing.
[00:53:21] CF: So good.
[00:53:22] JS: I want to ask you one more question. Tell us about your book.
[00:53:25] CF: Thanks for asking. I've had a very bizarro year, in that I have not been on Zoom for eight hours a day hanging out with people. I have been locked in a room trying to synthesize learnings from the last 13 years. And funnily enough, earlier today, I finished the first draft of my manuscript, which is a big deal. I took a shot of whiskey right before I got on this recording. So I’m loosened up and celebrated.
[00:53:55] JS: Oh, my God. Amazing. Well, what perfect timing.
[00:53:57] CF: Perfect timing. And there'll be many more drafts to come. But it's been very cool to get to actually fully focus and commit to a creative practice. And the book, it's called Renegade Grief, which you mentioned at the top. And the spirit is, as we've been talking about, in order to grieve well in the culture that most of us are living in, you have to be a little bit of an outlaw. You kind of have to go against the grain. Or else you won't actually grieve at all. The book is about 24 –
[00:54:26] JS: It's a great title.
[00:54:27] CF: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it wasn't the original title. And it emerged in the writing. And I was like, that's the spirit that I have come in contact with with so many people who are part of our community where I'm like, "Holy shit. How did you figure that out? How did you come up with that particular care practice, idea, or perspective oftentimes without any kind of religious framework that they're working within or elders who are able to assist and help people through their grief?" I feel like there's a lot of DIY, doing it yourself. But also doing it together that's happening. And yeah, the book will be published by Simon & Schuster and will come out sometime in 2024, it's looking like. But it's been a really powerful time for me to get out of the kind of, as I'm sure many Denizen people are familiar, the project management task master mindset. And really just let myself sit back and think about the stories I've heard over this last decade that have taken my breath away. And what are the themes that have emerged? And how can I package them in a way that whether someone is one week out from a loss experience or one decade out, it can be a tool for them to reflect on how they're relating to their grief and how can they be doing it in a way that feels agency-filled, and of their own design and a place that where creativity is welcome, and isn't just this thing that we need to get through and then get back to work.
[00:55:51] JS: Yeah. Well, I love how there's such a critical point to extrapolate from that, which is just the importance of having those mindsets period. Right? As you navigate the world, don't just accept the default.
[00:56:04] CF: Yes.
[00:56:06] JS: Be willing to step outside of that and be creative in your problem solving. And how much we just have blinders? We don't even realize we get blinders and we get myopic. I mean, that's part of what I'm trying to accomplish with this conversation, is to take people up to a higher elevation than they are in their work in the world and in their personal lives and realize that there's all of these adjacent spaces. Or that there are things that could be questioned that you might not realize. I just really appreciate that piece of that.
Wow. This has been – I just love how we started on something so deeply personal in our stories. And we followed an arc that brought us to some really profound insights around addressing our biggest problems. This has been really amazing. Thank you so much.
[00:56:55] CF: My pleasure.
[00:56:55] JS: Thank you so much for listening. And thanks to Scott Hansen, also known as Tycho, for our musical signature. In addition to this podcast, you can find resources for each episode on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com, including transcripts and background materials.
For our most essential topics like universal basic income, decentralized social media and long-term capitalism. We also have posts summarizing our research, which make it easy for listeners to very quickly get an overview of these particularly important and foundational topics.
On our website, you can also sign up for our newsletter where we bring our weekly podcast to your inbox alongside other relevant Denizen information. Subscribers are invited to join our podcast recordings and engage with the Denizen community in our online home, The Den. We're partnered with some incredible organizations at the forefront of the change that we talk about. We share announcements from them in our newsletter as well.
Finally, this podcast is made possible by support from the Denizen community and listeners like you. Denizen's content will always be free. Offering Denizen as a gift models a relational rather than a transactional economy. Enabling Denizen to embody the change that we talk about on this podcast through the reciprocity of listeners like you that we are able to continue producing this content. You can support us or learn more about our gift model on our website. Again, that's www.becomingdenizen.com.
Thanks again for listening and I hope you'll join us next time.
Our weekly newsletter is the best way to stay abreast of our inquiry and ongoing events.
Denizen operates a gift model to foster generous, reciprocating relationships.