Absent Friends Suppers

Supper at the Scottish Parliament

What happens if you invite virtual strangers to share memories of dead loved ones over dinner?

Wouldn’t that be awkward – being trapped at a dinner party, talking to fellow guests about dead people?

At the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, we wanted to find out. And we wanted Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to find out too...

So we sent out invitations to all MSPs:

Join us for a celebration of love, laughter and tears. We’ll share food, and anecdotes of dead loved ones. Listen to others and share your own story. All contributions welcome and might include...
A memory of smiles
A memory of tears
A memory of inspiration
The story of an artefact
Memories associated with food and drink
A song
A poem
The memory of a friend
The memory of a parent
The memory of a grandparent
The memory of a sibling
The memory of a child
A toast – ‘To Absent Friends’

And then we waited...

Would anyone want to come?

The responses we received to our invitations were touching and heart warming. Many MSPs emailed us sharing personal stories of loss. Understandably, many, though supportive of the work, had experiences still too raw to discuss over dinner with strangers.

Still, four MSPs accepted our invitation. And so, with excitement and trepidation, we started to make plans...

We invited some of the many people who are committed to promoting more open and supportive attitudes to death, dying and bereavement in Scotland - people who support this work in their professional and personal lives: the Chief Executive of Cruse Bereavement Care; a Consultant in Public Health at NHS Fife, the Chief Executive of Ayrshire Hospice, a Nurse Consultant from NHS Lothian, a recently retired colleague who looked after her mother with dementia at home.

Our invitations were quickly accepted, and the guests keenly committed to making contributions - the story of an artefact, the memory of a friend, a poem, a song – and we were able to make a rough programme of the evening’s contributions.

We booked the Members Restaurant at the Scottish Parliament – students from Ayrshire College would give us a 3 course meal for a price that even a small charity working on a shoe-string could justify... So, we were all set...

Then, all of a sudden it hit me

Then, all of a sudden, it hit me - this wasn’t just an academic or administrative exercise. I couldn’t just turn up at the Parliament, greet guests, smile nicely, and sit back and enjoy a nice 3-course meal.

I would have to contribute.

But how? I am no public speaker. Plus, what do I know about loss, or grief, or bereavement? I am no expert. I’m not even a skilled amateur. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing.

Then I realised, that isn’t what To Absent Friends is about. There are no qualifications to take part. It isn’t a competition to find out who has had the saddest life or can share the funniest anecdote. One of the points is to remind ourselves that we can all support each other through death and bereavement. You don’t need to be a counsellor, a priest, a politician or a stand-up comedian to take part. You just have to be genuine.

So I reflected... what would I like to share? Who would I like to pay tribute to that night?

I spent some evenings that week, pen in hand, recalling fond memories of times spent with my grandparents. I found myself enjoying the memories, enjoying working out how I could do them justice when I shared them with my fellow guests. To be honest, I surprised myself – I loved having a reason to spend time with those memories.

The dinner

So, is it possible to hold an event where guests who barely know each other share meaningful memories of dead loved ones? Yes.

The formality of structuring the meal around pre-volunteered contributions protected us from awkward silences, or niggling doubts about whether or not to stand up. The changing formats of the contributions kept the evening interesting. The dinner was hosted by Michael McMahon MSP, whose genuine warmth is infectious.

I’m sorry, there are no photos. The mood was intimate, and it just felt wrong to take pictures. Similarly, I won’t share the detail of people’s contributions, but I don’t think I need to. Someone sang a funny song their Dad taught them. Someone shared memories of his daughter. Someone else told the fascinating story behind a family artefact. Some pieces were rehearsed, some were spur of the moment. There was laughter, and there were tears.

And though we are all still relative strangers, I think on my fellow guests from that night with fondness. They smiled as I performed my piece about my Grandma, and I in turn was by moved and inspired by their stories. That night we shared so much more than a meal.

“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean they do not exist.”

Julian Barnes

By Rebecca Patterson.

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