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