One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle

I cried over a carton of ice cream. Not while eating a carton — or even a scoop. I cried about a carton of ice cream.

Chocolate Trinity promised to be my grief comfort food (

(Yes, my dog eats more carrots than my daughter and I do.)

I cried because I couldn’t find it.  Standing in the middle of the frozen food aisle, my eyes welled up, my nose ran, and my throat got all cry-choke-y. Was it too much to ask the store to have a carton of Chocolate Trinity in stock? It was the only item I wanted for myself when I drove my daughter there.

I’m not usually one to complain, but Publix policy seems to prompt every cashier to ask, “Did you find everything?” I’d never before admitted shopping-list defeat, but as I dried my eyes and sulked my way to the front of the store, I decided this time I’d speak up. The moment someone asked, I’d let my red-rimmed eyes make my petition seem more pathetic: No, I did not find everything I wanted. The only thing I wanted was Chocolate Trinity. And there wasn’t any.

I’m not sure what good I expected it to do. After all, Mom always taught me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” — not that  she could explain why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place — and I’ve tried to follow that approach with people.

For the first time ever in my years of going “Where Shopping Is a Pleasure,” the cashier didn’t ask whether I found everything. Since she didn’t bring it up, I couldn’t. When she bid me a good night, I forced a plastic smile and polite nod, expressions I donned often in the early days after my husband died.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous even to me, but I cried a bit more in the parking lot.  I sniffled while driving home. While unloading the car. And yet again while not putting away the Chocolate Trinity I didn’t get to buy.

Looking back on my ice cream mini meltdown, I realize it wasn’t  the missing ice cream that hurled me into distress at the drop of a hat — er, drop of a flavor. It was the loss — the tiny, little loss — that amplified the grief behind the reason I wanted that Chocolate Trinity.

July is one of my grief minefield months, and I wanted ice cream — that ice cream — as a grief-trigger comfort food.*  When I searched every shelf of that frozen food aisle and looked behind every container but found nary a single carton of the one I wanted, it meant I found no comfort.

My husband died nearly seven years ago. I seldom cry over his death now — after years — but sometimes it still gets to me. Times like the approach of my wedding anniversary. Times when I’m briefly stirred back inside the newly bereaved, cry-without-warning emotions of the first year and a half (or more) of new widowhood.

When grief is raw, grocery shopping hurts. Everyday reminders of the loved one’s favorite foods make meal planning and cooking difficult. It’s hard enough when your body is mourning to remember you need to eat without seeing reminders that your deceased dear ones no longer eat anything.

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

When grief triggers a desire for comfort food, ice cream is ice cream — but vanilla isn’t Chocolate Trinity. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

In Grief and Groceries, Part 1, I shared why it’s so helpful to bring a family food before (and after) a funeral. For a list of specific, food-related ways to offer condolence and comfort to your friends after a death, please see Grief and Groceries, Part 2.

As for me, I’ll have to make do with vanilla. For now.


*After my mother’s death, my comfort food of choice was chicken-broccoli-rice casserole — her recipe for chicken-broccoli rice casserole. Is the ice cream I wanted a healthy coping device? Of course not, though I could make an argument that it’s less harmful than some.


You Can’t Put a Bandage on Grief

When my daughters were little, they often bruised or scraped themselves in the course of everyday play. A kiss from Mommy or Daddy (and perhaps a Sharpie-drawn smiley face on a Band-Aid — whether necessary or not) was all it took to make things okay again.

Sometimes other tots grabbed toys, knocked over blocks, or cut their Barbies’ hair — oh, wait … it was my child who did that (as practice before “trimming” her friend’s bangs). All it took to reset their emotional footing was distraction — manufactured by word or sleight-of-hand. Almost at once, they got back to the business of learning by play.

As they grew older their minds and hearts grew into increasingly complex, interdependent organs. It became harder to “fix” what upset them. The inevitable day came. A daughter spurned my offer to “kiss it better” as she clutched at the reddened skin on her forearm. “That won’t help,” she pouted, her eyes daring me to contradict her. My offer to read her a story elicited the same response.

She was right, of course. A hug or kiss didn’t take away the sting of the injury. A bandage could cover the wound (at least temporarily) and hopefully keep out germs that would otherwise impede healing, but beneath its plain (or decorated) facade, remained a wound that required time — and the right circumstances — to mend. A kiss of affection, a favorite toy to hold, or a new story to distract might momentarily provide another focal point, but every heartbeat fueled throbbing reminders that all was not well.

It’s the same for grief. Bandages don’t work.

You can't put a bandage on grief to "fix it" or "make it better." Like any wound, it takes time.

You can’t put a bandage on grief to “fix it” or “make it better.” Like any wound, it takes time.

When grief is new (and by “new” I mean the loss occurred within two years — yes, I said years), the bereaved often bruise and scrape their psyches against circumstances of living in the course of everyday survival. Such emotional abrasions include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Significant dates — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (of both positive and negative events). For many within the first 18 months after a loved one’s death, that day of the week (every week) and that date of the month (every month) feels like ripping off a fresh scab, re-traumatizing survivors.
  • The “business” of death — deeds, accounts, titles, plots, medical bills, insurance … The list of accounts can seem endless for an adult or unfairly incomplete for a child. Making each phone call or office visit is excruciating. Every time I called another provider, I sobbed. Removing my husband’s name from each document felt like erasing him. It felt disloyal. It felt violent. Horrible.
  • Routine “first since” appointments — the dentist, the doctor, the pharmacist, the mechanic, the accountant … Anywhere a person has done business in an ongoing manner, that first visit since the death occurred forces yet another face-to-face bout of admitting a loved one is no longer living. As a new widow, I cried every time. Many forms had boxes to check that offered only the options of single, married, or divorced. I wrote in “widowed” on paper forms. Online forms frustrated me so badly I shrieked at the computer (and I’ve never been a “yeller”). If I checked “married,” they required ongoing contact information no longer applicable, but for a long, long time I refused to consider myself “single,” so that option didn’t work, either.
  • Getting groceries — ugh! Walking through the aisles was awful, awful, awful. “His” foods stood out on the shelves. I couldn’t find things I wanted right in front of me (on rare occasions when I actually knew what I wanted). I couldn’t even remember to consult the list in my hand. The first time I saw THE paramedics from the nearby fire station in the store, oh, how I lost it!

Recently, Megan Devine of Refuge in Grief wrote “grief & the grocery store.” If you want to understand what your grieving friend experiences in the ordeal of getting groceries, please read what she has to say:

You can’t cover your grieving friends’ loss with a bandage. You can’t “fix it” or “make it better.” But you can offer them momentary distraction from their pain by including them in your plans (whether they accept your invitations or not). You can aid them in their healing by acknowledging significant dates, offering to fill out paperwork (or make other business calls), accompanying (or taking) them for routine appointments, and going with them to the store to help them navigate the perils of produce.*

Be with them in their grief. Be patient as they heal.


*For an in-depth look at one element of grocery-intensified grief, see my essay Eggplant Elegy” in the online journal Segullah.


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.

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