We’ve wanted to write this for awhile.
We wanted to write this on June 13, 2015, when you shared a Facebook post to mark the end of sheloshim. We wanted to write this on May 16, when we read and watched (and read and watched again) your commencement address at Berkeley. When we read your announcement earlier this month about Facebook’s new bereavement leave, and considered its implications for all who take their cues from its example, we realized it was time.
First, allow us to say, we were sorry to hear about Dave, as wholly inadequate as that is to say. That his was a life well lived is an extraordinary understatement, evidenced in the way you’ve carried on his legacy, in the outpouring of tributes from friends and colleagues that followed his death, and, in a small but significant way, in the fact that we and millions of others continue to use the tools he created. We can only wonder what might have been had he had longer to live that life.
But ours is less a condolence letter than it is a thank-you.
Thank you for opening up a dialogue about grief and loss and the difference between Life Before and Life After. Thank you for giving we who choose to lean in permission sometimes to lean on. Thank you for reminding us that resilience is a muscle: one that’s worked when, confronted by our worst days, we choose to acknowledge the things that are okay or better than okay, and to recognize that the existence of one does not eliminate the other. Thanks for reminding us that nothing in this life, including sorrow, is permanent, and that “when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”
Thank you for doing it all without attempting to sugarcoat or mentioning silver linings, for recognizing that to acknowledge the “huge reservoir of sadness” we carry in no way denies what loss has taught us, nor diminishes our ability to lay claim to our time on Earth.
And thank you for recognizing that your story is a shared story, and for choosing to match words to policies. Thank you for reminding us, once again, that great teams are born of great companies that choose to stand by the whole person in our hours of greatest need. Thank you for leading by example, and calling on employers to address the impact of loss on their employees with the same level of attention they discuss other life events , be that moving to a new city or starting a family.
We, too, know about waking up to a reality we did not ask for and do not wish to be in, about the fog of grief, about the realization that normal as we knew it is and will forever remain gone. We, too, are intimately familiar with the irony that, as universal and unavoidable as death is, we’re still not great at supporting each other through it.
It’s our own personal experience — and hunger for connection — that inspired us to start The Dinner Party, a community of (mostly) 20- and 30-somethings who’ve lost moms and dads, siblings and partners and friends, infants and children. Together, we’re out to transform life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement. We get together for potluck meals, and a chance to share the part of ourselves that rarely sees the light of day, turning groups of strangers into groups of friends. Our story began as a handful of friends and friends of friends, who got together for a meal one night and created what we’d failed to find. Since 2012, we’ve grown from a couple dozen people to a community of more than 4,000, active in over 120 cities in the US and beyond.
Among the many themes that come up at our tables is our relationship to work, and workplace: the way work can serve as an anchor when we feel most unmoored, and just as often ring hollow when our worlds have completely upended; the loyalty conferred or lost based on the response of a boss, or a coworker; the fact that we most need a safety net not when we’re at our best, but when we’re at our worst.
And we know, too, that the problem is felt not just by employees, but by managers, colleagues, and HR teams, who are continually torn by the human impulse to be human, and the need to keep the trains running, who wonder what support looks like one week, one month or even one year later, who recognize that policies are only as strong as the culture in which they operate.
Over the last year, we came to wonder how companies, leaders, and managers might create the space and culture where everyone, whomever they are and whatever office they occupy, felt safe being vulnerable, and showing up with their full selves, where people could ask for and receive help without appearing needy or weak. We’d seen, from research and our own experience, that companies that create a culture in which teams feel psychologically safe produce better work. We heard from one Dinner Partier whose company gave her flexibility to come to work two hours early and leave two hours early, so she could take her partner to chemotherapy multiple times each week. We heard from others whose employers were less than understanding, and who ultimately quit as a result.
So we started experimenting.
We hosted a couple of weekend retreats for Airbnb employees who’d experienced loss, and were looking for a space to open up about their experiences, and where they’d been and where they were, and to reflect on what it looked like to live well after. We led a training for the Hospice Giving Foundation, on how to embed peer-support in their existing programming, and how to get millennials through the door. We started sharing crowdsourced tips and tools on how to navigate the workplace, with employees who were new to the experience. We led a company-wide workshop for a holistic healthcare company, debunking the myths around grief and loss and equipping employees at all levels to better support those going through it. We engaged in leadership coaching for a VP of a professional sports association navigating multiple losses among his staff. And we’re hosting a community dinner and training for “people people” (read: Talent, Culture, HR, Ops) to share what’s working and what’s not in supporting employees going through challenging times.
We’re not interested in just getting people “back to normal”, but allowing real life experience and meaningful connections to unlock latent potential in people and teams. We envision a day in which employers help their employees thrive at work and in life despite losses and challenges they might face: a day in which those who have experienced trauma and loss don’t feel impeded by their experience, but rather use it as a means to become better listeners and better leaders, demonstrating profound empathy, resilience, and connectedness.
We invite Facebook to join us in making this vision a reality by partnering on the programs and cultural interventions that we’ve seen catalyze communities of support, whether you’ve experienced loss or work on the same team as someone who has. In giving people the time they need to begin to heal, and ensuring the workplace they return gives them what they need to thrive, Facebook has chosen to address loss not as an event but as a process. We believe we can turn the loss of a loved one — one of the few things that all of us share regardless of age, or race, or class, or political or religious beliefs, or seniority — from a conversation-killer into a conversation-starter, and from a conversation to a whole new way of working, and being, together.
A part of us will always long for Option A. Thanks for giving us permission to kick the shit out of Option B.
and The Dinner Party team