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.


Merry Christmas Mourning (Death Changes Holidays)

I had a wonderful Christmas this year, the first filled with more joy than sorrow since my husband died in 2010. (Yes, I already had my Christmas celebration, and yes, I know it isn’t yet December 25.)

But last year to a small degree, and the year before more so, and the year before, and the year before, and the awful year before that … (I’m  shuddering now at the painful recollections …) What most stands out is memories not of Christmas mornings but of Christmas mourning.

THIS year I sang Christmas hymns and carols at church without crying. (Okay, I did cry when the choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” but it was because the music and the message were beautiful, not because I was too emotional with grief to tolerate the familiarity of it.)

THIS year I fell into sleep on our family’s pre-Christmas Eve without tossing and turning. (Most nights I still — five years later — have difficulty getting to sleep without my husband beside me, but this year my kids and I were so on-the-go I was tired enough to leave consciousness behind the moment my head hit the pillow — but I won’t admit to them how late even that was.)

THIS year I read every line of friends’ Christmas letters without grudging envy over their continued co-parenting. (In other years since my husband died, I couldn’t get all the way through. I’ve never considered myself jealous by nature, but reading the happy announcements of what they’d done together hurt too much as I struggled to balance grief and single parenting.)

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

This was our barely dressed Christmas tree (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

They say time heals all wounds. In grieving, it certainly helps. But healing takes much longer than most non-grievers think, and “healing” in grief is never fully complete. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis likened his wife’s death to an amputation. The surrounding tissues would stop bleeding and would close up and mend, but there would always be a scar, and “normal” life would never, ever be the same.

Part of what made this year easier for me was the way we deliberately shook up (and also broke up) our Christmas traditions: Instead of putting up a six-foot tree the day after Thanksgiving* (and decorating it with nearly 30 years of memory-rich accumulated, sentimental ornaments), we pulled a factory-lit four-footer from its box (still wearing last year’s also-boxed-up string of red beads, a star, and an angel). We usually enjoy Christmas dinner in the afternoon a few hours after opening presents in the morning; this year we ate our traditional menu one night, but we opened Christmas stockings and presents three mornings later; we sipped night-before-Christmas cocoa at the end of our Christmas day, before my out of state daughters left.

This year Old Doggie Dear's stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box -- alongside my late husband's stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This year Old Doggie Dear’s stocking stayed in the Christmas decorations box — alongside my late husband’s stocking. New Doggie Dear got her own. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Part of what made Christmas more poignant this year was buying an inexpensive stocking for our new doggie. It didn’t feel right to use Old Doggie Dear’s. My out of state daughters fell head-over-heels in love-at-first-sight with New Doggie Dear — just as much as my other daughter and I did from day one — but we all cried (at least once or twice) over Old Doggie Dear’s absence — even while loving and playing with New Doggie Dear.

And it was heartwarming but heartbreaking to again gather at Aunt Ginny’s for our Christmas meal. (Family members still own her house, so we felt blessed to be there where we invoked her memory and her zest for family get-togethers.) Like we’ve done for most of the last 20 years, my girls and I made the meal together, and everyone present held hands in a circle of prayer the way Aunt Ginny always insisted on before we ate. (But the circle felt incomplete without Aunt Ginny herself squeezing my hand with her bony but incredibly strong fingers.)

Both Aunt Ginny (a few days short of 95) and Doggie Dear (13) died in the first half of this year. So this was our first Christmas without them. It was our sixth without my husband,  our 21st without Mom.

At the holidays, even those of us whose grief isn’t “new” often agonize through moments when our losses feel as raw and as inescapable as when they were.

For those grieving recent deaths, the missing loved one’s absence often tarnishes tradition, defiles decoration, taints taste, and mars music.

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

This well-intended message comes across as diminishing the reality and importance of grieving a loss. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

In the first few years after my husband died, I disliked being told to have a “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays.” How could I be merry or happy at all? (Don’t think I never smiled or laughed, because there must have been good moments … but they were the exceptions.)

I knew the people who wished me such seasons greetings were at the least being polite and at the best hoping to offer cheer to my gloomy, wounded soul. Being told I was supposed to feel “merry” while grieving felt like my loss wasn’t important — didn’t matter — to them.

This year, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before our family’s Christmas celebrations that I realized it took me six Christmases before I could accept people’s “merry Christmas” greetings at face value (and not as thoughtless reprimands).

If your friends grieve a recent loss (and by recent I mean within a couple of years, not just a couple of months!), invite them to join you in your celebrations. Let them know you are thinking of them this holiday season. Acknowledge their loss to show them it’s okay for them to be sad in the midst of holiday cheer.

If they should feel like laughing or playing reindeer games with you, so much the better, but if they need to cry or decline and be reclusive, support them in that as well. Let them know you’re okay with whatever works for them.


*Our first Christmas without my husband, just three months after he died, I forgot about Christmas trees, decorations, everything — until a group of church brothers knocked on my door and asked whether I already had a Christmas tree. When I said no, they stepped to the back of a pickup truck in my driveway, pulled down a fragrant pine, brought it into the house, and set it up for me.

They didn’t call to ask if they could bring it (still in shock, I’d have said no) and they didn’t say “Let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.” (I wasn’t capable of knowing what I needed, much less asking for it if I figured it out.) They thought of something they thought might help me, showed up with it, and then asked while on my doorstep.

I’ll never forget their kindness and thoughtfulness!

#DearMe–Be Kind

In celebration of International Women’s Day, YouTube asked women everywhere to share what advice they’d give their younger selves if they could go back in time.

As I pondered the question, one phrase shoved all others aside, time and again.

Be kind.

Be kind to your friends, and be kind to strangers. Be kind to people you don’t like. Be kind to people having a good time around you. Be kind — even kinder — to those having rough times.

If someone’s hurting, be kind.

And while you’re at it, be kind to yourself, too.

Do kind things. Say kind words.

Be kind.


MLK Jr., Kennedy, and Me

On Monday, January 20, the US acknowledges the lifework (and untimely death) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a national day of service. While it’s important to honor his dream and further its fulfillment, my thoughts drift from his public role to his personal identity. Yes, he was a dedicated civil rights leader, but above that he was a son, a brother, a husband, a father. When he was murdered, he left behind a grieving family.

Of course, the King family isn’t the only family to have suffered public awareness of (and participation in) private bereavement. Five years earlier, First Lady Jackie Kennedy received hundreds of thousands of condolence letters after her husband’s assassination. Last week they were released to the public. I’m not surprised that she kept them. I’ve kept every note (both handwritten and electronic) written to me after my husband’s death.

Both Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. King grieved their personal losses in public. They lost far more than a public figure; each widow lost her husband, and their children lost their fathers.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been touched by images of the young widow Kennedy and her son saluting his father’s casket. Emotion has always welled up when I’ve heard and read the stirring words of the late Reverend Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now that I’m widowed, too, I see that the legacies of these men who changed our nation are inextricably enmeshed in the grief their families suffered. These images and words tug at my empathy. Yes, I honor their legacies, but that honor is both tainted and hallowed by my own understanding of what it is to grieve not a leader but a loved one.

During this week’s Day of Service, many worthy causes deserve your time and attention. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from volunteering with any organization or at any event. May I suggest you consider instead serving individuals who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one? Whether the loss is recent or “old,” whether the survivor is someone you know well or only know “of,” whether you reach out to children who’ve lost a parent or to a parent who’s lost a child, do something to show you care.

Sometimes it’s good to join forces in large groups to elicit change when we “have a dream.” Sometimes, though, we need to reach out one-on-one to exemplify “the brotherhood of man.”