Guess Who’s (Not) Coming to Dinner?

6 ways to navigate small talk after a loss

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It always went the same way. I’d hesitantly accept the dinner invitation. The evening would start smoothly. Then, as the appetizers were being cleared, someone would start with the innocent, nice-to-meet-you-dinner questions.

“Oh, nearby in Kemp Mill,” I said one night, in response to one woman’s query as to my hometown. My shoulders stiffened. I’d survived the first round. But just the first one. On this occasion, it took only two questions.

“Do your parents still live there?”

We were barely past the hors d’oeuvres, but suddenly it felt like I was being asked to serve up my reality as the entrée. Still so raw, I answered quietly, trying to give away nothing: “My Dad does.”

My mother had died suddenly from a stroke a few months earlier. Ever since, even the simplest acts, such as accepting a dinner invitation, had become fraught with anxiety. Small talk resembled a firing squad, as I struggled to anticipate and avoid questions that seemed to fly at me like bullets. The metaphor may seem extreme, but at this point in the grieving process, each word I uttered on the topic actually physically hurt.

After too many experiences choking up over chitchat and chicken soup, I finally developed some small talk survival techniques. Here’s my menu of ways to navigate the dinner table minefield while living with loss.

1. Avoid

You don’t have to accept the invitation. If I accepted any offer within that first year, I always included a caveat to the host that it would be a game-time decision and I might call an audible and not show up.

2. Deflect

If and when you actually show up at a table, a loaded question will come your way, disguised as an innocent one (Do your parents still live there?). I’d like to invoke the wisdom of one of the greatest political figures of modern times, Leo McGarry. Once in the West Wing – I mean, on an episode of The West Wing – he offered this advice on handling the press: “If you don’t like what they’re asking, you don’t accept the premise of the question.” Say whatever the hell you want to in that moment.  This soup is delicious.

3. Be vague

Make a non-committal grunt or nod. I lived in India for a year after college and found priceless refuge in the ambiguous head bob, a gesture which somehow means “yes” and “no.” And then – this is important – redirect. That’s grunt/bob and then redirect. Where do YOU live? People love talking about themselves. And as a result, most will never notice that you’ve changed the course of the conversation.

4. Hide amongst the young

If you have absolutely no appetite for this kind of conversation, I suggest a preemptive strategy or distraction tactic. Locate a baby or young child and sit beside them (one of the only times I’d ever advise this). Kids are notorious for their interrogation tactics, but they can also be incredibly comforting and distracting creatures – especially when they have little to no vocabulary yet.

5. Invoke the in-between tense

It’s time I let you in on another secret of the bereaved. This is slightly more advanced than using body language or baby distractions. Use it after you decide to accept the premise of the question. There’s actually a tense that isn’t past or present. In many ways, this is how you feel when you’re grieving – that you’re existing in the in-between. Do your parents still live there? “My Mom always dreamed of retiring to New York City, but still got the house in Kemp Mill.” Now, all that is technically true, and it’s pretty neutral time-wise. This technique, when employed correctly, can dodge many bullets.

6. Pull an Irish goodbye

If #1 through 5 fail, don’t feel obliged to stay. Ghost or discretely whisper farewell to the host. As you walk out the door, hopefully with a dessert doggie bag, be gentle with yourself for having shown up at all. Then go find a safe space to remove the emotional armor.

Gradually, the risk assessment of a social gathering will change. There is value in accepting invitations and reengaging with the world planted firmly in the present tense. But for now, there may be greater value in sticking with those who will serve up comfort food and hold the small talk.

Certain questions may always hurt, opening up stitches to a wound that never quite heals. This January marked six years since I lost my Mom. And I’m still following some of these rules. There are still things that are off the table. But, while the ache remains, the amount of time before you can take another bite lessens.

A couple years ago, my Dad decided it was time to move to an apartment in a nearby retirement community. We packed up the house, another loss in a series of losses. No, my parents don’t live there anymore.

Rebecca Shaloff is a writer and independent consultant supporting social change organizations with fundraising and communications. She lives in Washington, DC, not too far from her father.

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