Dinner Parties That Matter

By Suzi Craig, MHC’s Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy

“It’s not about the rupture, it’s about the repair.”

These are the words that Nelba Marquez-Greene shared at MHC’s 2017 Art of Wellbeing: An Evening of Jazz, Hope, and Healing. Nelba is a seasoned mental health professional, CEO of a nonprofit based on love and connection, and mom to Isaiah and Isaiah’s younger sister, Ana Grace, who was killed at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012.

In less than 40 minutes during a conversation with WNPR’s John Dankosky, Nelba and her husband Jimmy Greene shared a lifetime’s worth of experiences, honesty, vulnerability, a vision for change that starts with love, and an insight into healing and grief that I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

I suspect that I’d be better off not wrapping my head around anything. It’s the heart that matters most here. It’s the heart that breaks during grief and loss. It’s the heart that “goes out” to parents like Nelba and Jimmy from people like me – outsiders who attempt to imagine their pain while simultaneously panicking and running the other way, afraid to face the possibility that the tragedy they’ve experienced is possible for us too.

The heart is squishy. It feels what it feels. Many times wisdom comes from the heart but it’s ignored because we live in a “thinking culture” where logic and reason often have a higher value over emotional intelligence.

Jimmy and Nelba talked openly about the idea that being around someone who has experienced tragedy naturally forces us to face our own fears. The result is that many people choose not to be around them. This means isolation for Nelba and Jimmy. Friends are afraid to invite them to dinner. What would you say? How do you act?

Oh, the irony. When it’s the village that someone needs the most after the inconceivable happens, it’s the village that shrinks away because they don’t have the tools to deal with it all.

This blew my mind. And it’s changing how I think, and how I will respond, to others experiencing trauma. It’s also deepening my commitment to the work of community engagement and connection, one of MHC’s four core ingredients to recovery (with home, health, and purpose). Often seen as ancillary or a nice-to-have (and some of the first programs to go in state budget cuts), building community connections are essential to being well. I know this and have known this for years in other work that I’ve done but during this conversation I felt it and even now struggle with what words to use because, the work is, as MHC’s art coordinator Amy Smith says so often, “heart work.” Put the thinking aside, reconnect to the heart and let’s do this.

Nelba lives and breathes heart work. Through her nonprofit, The Ana Grace Project, she uses community connection as an active participant in healing and wellness. Jimmy connects with others through jazz – the writing, the playing, and the rhythm of life that he finds through music. Both are creative expressions, unique in their manifestations, and designed to change the world by deploying love to change how we are with each other.

Jimmy and Nelba’s openness with John was paired by John’s thoughtful guidance, allowing for what seemed like a genuine comfort for them. That was stunning to watch and infinitely inspiring. Those of us in the room listening were honored and grateful for their ability to share so much of themselves and their story.

Nelba wrapped up the discussion with a simple question for John: so, are you going to invite us to dinner?
Among the laughs in the audience and a giant smile from John, we all knew what she meant. It was a question for John (and might actually include a real dinner) but it was also a rally cry for all of us.

Invite someone to dinner. Be with them when they need you the most. Get over your discomfort about being around their pain. Because it’s not about you. Someone else’s pain is bigger than all of us. Nelba’s passionate plea for us to remember her son and his pain, and to think of others who are in their situation but are not in the national spotlight, reminded us that Nelba and Jimmy are among the many who are suffering. We have a lot of work to do.

Remember, it’s not about the rupture, it’s about the repair.

For more information about the Art of Wellbeing, please visit: www.mhconn.org/events/AWB