Grief and Groceries, Part 2

Food is a basic human need, but for the bereaved, normal appetites are thrown askew. For some mourners, grief squelches all desire for food. For some it intensifies it.

Here are food-related ways to help bereaved friends:

Drop off food and/or bring cash (or gift cards) for restaurants or grocery stores. Besides the reasons I mentioned in my other post on this subject (*see below), death is costly to its survivors. Lost income, funeral and burial or cremation expenses, ambulance and medical bills, title transfer fees, and unexpected travel and lodging for relatives can break an already bereaved family budget.

Cash and gift cards for food will help grieving families (TealAshes.com).

Even small gestures toward food and other expenses can offer comfort — and be of practical help — after someone dies. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Drop off disposables. Throwaway plates and utensils, paper towels and napkins (not to mention facial tissue — lots of it!), and disposable foil or plastic serving dishes may not be environmentally sound options, but they will simplify tasks for mourners. Doing dishes and returning pans shouldn’t add to the already overwhelming burdens the bereaved face in every waking hour.

Coordinate quantities, kinds, and arrivals. Meals are helpful and essential, but if on the same day neighbors, friends, and church family drop off twelve chicken casseroles for a bereaved family of four vegetarians — or six coconut cakes for a couple with diabetes — neither the generous givers nor the grieving recipients will benefit.

Better late than never. Don’t limit mealtime help to the week of the funeral. Such active gestures will be deeply appreciated later as the bereaved faces arduous tasks of adjustment in weeks, months, and even years to come. When initial outpourings have slowed to a trickle, ongoing acts of support will offer needed comfort.

Invite bereaved friends to go grocery shopping with you, and offer to pick up staples for them. Grocery stores are HUGE grief triggers as mourners face aisle after aisle of their loved ones’ favorite foods — and their least favorites. I can’t count how many times I “lost it” at the grocery store during the first year after my husband died.

Ask grieving friends if they’ve had a drink of water lately. Better yet, hand them a cool glass or chilled water bottle. Bring them a case of water, juice, or other healthy beverages. The stress (not to mention the tears) of grieving cause dehydration that leads to headaches and further stresses on the body.

My appetite was so rewired by grief I couldn’t recognize normal hunger cues. For months after my husband’s death, I didn’t remember I was supposed to eat or drink. If not for my teenager at home, I wouldn’t have remembered mealtimes at all. Many days I’d graze on a handful of this or that (fruit, dry cereal, a slice of bread …) and I’d sip from the same glass of water all day long rather than the six to eight glasses I used to drink daily.

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*Also see Grief and Groceries, Part 1

Grief and Groceries, Part 1

Many of Mom’s cakes and casseroles never made it to our table. Instead, she took them to homes where sickness, injury or death touched a family. She never made a big deal out of it; she just did it — and in the process taught me it was the thing to do as I grew up and fed my family. Even as a little kid, I understood the practicality of bringing meals to people who were hurt or sick, but I didn’t understand (or think about) why she took food when someone died.

The beginnings of understanding came in a poignant moment when I stood in my parents’ kitchen surrounded by plates and bowls and platters of food. “So this is why we take food after a death …”  Two years earlier my husband and I’d moved our young family cross-country to care for Mom while Dad worked nights during her recovery from breast cancer. She’d held it off three years longer than the initial diagnosis predicted, but when tumors resurfaced — this time in her brain — we soon realized the cancer was terminal. Its speed left us bereft only two months into the projected six more we’d hoped to have with her.

We’d known it was coming, said our goodbyes, and were with her at the end. We’d been as prepared as anyone could have been, yet in an equally real sense, we weren’t prepared — not at all. The finality of death brought the unexpected shock of her loss to us all.

It is not possible (either physically or emotionally) to become truly “ready” to experience the visceral realities of new grief, even if you’ve experienced other losses before.

Mom’s absence filled my every thought. At that time I was pregnant with our youngest child (but Mom won’t get to meet her, and she’ll never know her grandma). Besides my concerns for Dad (How will he get along without Mom after 32 years together?), I worried for our two young daughters who were also upset by their grandmother’s death (They’ve lived most their lives with her — and now they’ve lost her, too). Although we needed the routine of mealtimes and bedtimes (I can’t sleep — Mom’s gone), I was too much in shock (because Mom was dead) to organize thoughts well enough to manage the what-seemed-complicated process of assembling PB&J sandwiches (like Mom taught me to make). In my newly grieving state of mind, preparing a hot meal (like Mom used to cook) was as unlikely as my bulging, pregnant body competing in a World Wrestling championship — and attempting it might have resulted in a bigger mess.

But I didn’t have to. Thoughtful, compassionate friends, neighbors, and church members brought meals. There were hot dinners and dishes that required only reheating (with time and temperature instructions clearly labeled); ready-to-eat cold cuts and salads; and fruit and veggie platters with dips. There were frozen meals “for later.” Countertops held homemade and store-bought breads and desserts (some made especially for my children), as well as candy and chips. Every brought-in item became “comfort food” in a time when comfort was sorely needed.

“Ohhh …” I thought. I actually nodded my head like a bobblehead doll. “Now I understand why we take food after a death.” It was as if the pencil-sketched idea suddenly became a full-color photograph. I vowed that, henceforth, I’d not only drop off such items, but I’d do so with more thought and thoughtfulness, more compassion in my cooking.

After my husband died suddenly, my framed print perception of “why we take meals after a death” became a life-sized hologram complete with Dolby surround sound and smell-a-vision. But not at first, not in those earliest hours of shock.

In the wee hours after his passing, I’d posted a message that said something like, “Our family needs your prayers. … Grieving.” I hadn’t even told who “we” were, much less that my husband had suddenly died (because that would have made it “real,” and I couldn’t do that). That morning there was a knock at my door. A friend stood there. She offered a hug, a condolence card signed by her and another friend, a Publix gift card, and a frozen entree. She said to throw it in the freezer for now, but then use it when I might need it later.

I thanked her and thought, “This is nice, but … why?” (Weeks later, when all was too quiet and in my widowed fog I’d forgotten to get groceries but needed to feed my daughter, I remembered their gift and understood why.)

That first day after his death, another couple dropped-off a deli platter of sandwich roll-ups, apologizing profusely that it was neither hot nor homemade, but when my college daughters arrived home for the funeral and none of us had consistent appetites, being able to reach in the fridge and grab a bite at a time was perfect.

With extended family coming into town, I deeply appreciated the post-funeral meal and extra dishes provided by friends and other church family. Leftovers helped feed everyone beyond that one day, and I was too exhausted and drained to prepare anything that required more than oven or microwave reheating.

Friends thought they were feeding our bodies — and they were — but more importantly they were feeding our souls with their practical demonstrations of concern.

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Grief and Groceries, Part 2, lists additional practical ways you can help with food after a death.

Grief Takes a Holiday

This post title could be interpreted a couple of ways. For instance, grief sometimes takes a holiday and makes it a hostage, hiding it away from all past expectations and practices. It can (and will) take over the traditional celebration of any (and every) holiday or special occasion, translating once-joyous dates into somber signposts of loss. This is particularly true within (but not limited to) the awful Year of Firsts in which new mourners face twelve full months of ” the first time without” their loved ones, culminating in the anniversary of the death that took them. Grief doesn’t discriminate; it takes over all such events, whether they are public or private, secular or sacred, frivolous or formal.

But that’s not the interpretation I intended by this title.

After the initial shock of bereavement begins to fade (and this takes months, not weeks), grief  takes a holiday from inflicting its regularly scheduled torments on the bereaved. By “regularly scheduled” I mean 24/7 because Grief (personified as Death’s hang-around cousin) invades sleepless thoughts and disturbing dreams as easily as it steps into the personal space of its targets’ wakeful awareness. Without warning, Grief takes over so much of a mourner’s life that no more will fit. Every pore becomes saturated  with sorrow and every air sac stretches near to bursting with bereavement; every bone, tooth, hair, and nail droops, leaden with agony. Grief becomes too heavy, too smothering, too oppressive. Too. Much.

As pervasive as Grief becomes in the lives of those who’ve suffered deep loss, from time to time it becomes too much to handle. Too much. Too. Much. TOO MUCH. TOO MUCH! Grief has to take an occasional (albeit brief) break from its duties lest its unwilling hosts break altogether.

And so Grief takes a holiday.

In the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday, Death took on human form for three days in order to better understand why people avoided him with such vehemence. During that time not one person died — not anywhere in the world. In this old black and white film, Death was too busy going about the business of living to go about his usual duties.

While this analogy isn’t perfect, it’s the best way I can think to explain the looonnnng two-month gap between my last post (July 3) and this one (September 4).  Within a short period, Grief butted into one too many conversations, eavesdropped on two too many phone calls, snooped through three too many emails, and inked itself into too, too many calendar squares.

Grief was becoming an obnoxious pain in the — well, it was becoming a pain — and it realized I’d hit my saturation point. Lack of sleep and a nasty, lingering respiratory virus left me tired and sick physically, and a convergence of multiple grief triggers left me sick and tired of feeling, well, sick and tired.

I held my hands to my ears, closed my eyes and chanted,

La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la–la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la …”

I had to ignore Mr. Grief as I regrouped to take better care of myself. (That meant no more writing — especially about grief — during supposed-to-be sleeping hours!)

When Grief realized its attentions were becoming futile, it went on holiday to recharge and, no doubt, to seek out and practice new methods and tricks. Meanwhile, in the real-life, three-dimensional Technicolor world, I was busy going about the business and duties of living.

I’d like to say Grief left for good, but — Alas! — that’s not how it works.

I’ve been “tagged,” so Grief keeps my itinerary on its watch list. It may watch me from the sidelines, monitoring my emotional baggage and holiday plans, but it never retires its ID badge or all-access card key. It lurks, more determined than any stalker. And it runs into the terminal whenever it chooses, sometimes keeping me from making my connecting flights. Once in a while it tosses a handful of cheap souvenirs my way, as if offering to make things all right.

I don’t know that Grief and I will ever become friends, though we’ve become so well acquainted. I’m now a more seasoned traveler. I’ve learned that once in a while it’s okay to shove Grief off the path and let me step along on my own. Even knowing it will return from time to time, I’ve earned the right — and the ability — to give it a push and say, “Grief, take a holiday!”