Nigel offering his famous Trifle

Nigel offering his famous Trifle

I borrowed part of the title of this essay from Natalie Goldberg whose generous craft book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” offers great sustenance to writers. Her’s is a healing book to encourage writers to get on with life, to feed the writer spirit, to be attentive to place, to memory and experience.

I’ve been grappling with writing about healing from grief, specifically how I survived the death of my husband in Vietnam in 1969, and then the tragic death of my father after a construction accident in 1981, and my younger brother’s death from AIDS in 1989.
I’m not special in my experiences. It is rare to meet anyone who has not experienced a generous helping of tragic events. But, my question is: How do we share these experiences among ourselves? How do we decide what to do and what to say? Can we pinpoint things that are helpful?

Being a lover of cooking and the sharing of food, some old culinary memories bubbled up as I thought about living through tough times. I can’t say that I desired anything to do with eating in the aftermath of learning that my husband had been killed when I was twenty-three, but I do remember the presence of food in that difficult time; I remember people gathered around me at the dining room table and in restaurants where others ate and I sat in stunned silence.I remember kindness and encouragement without pressure to participate and eat.

When my grandmother died in 1972, a basket arrived on our doorstep even before the funeral. It contained a piping hot casserole of fresh mixed vegetables and chunks of tender, simmered lamb. My mother presumed it was left by Mrs. Wheeler – a famous cook in church supper circles in our town – because, according to mom, it was one of her signature dishes. Later that day, Gram’s best friend Mabel arrived in a dark blue crepe de chine dress carrying an angel food cake, frosted with whipped cream and studded with maraschino cherries. There is something perennially cheerful about bright red cherries even in dark moments.

The food kept coming as friends and neighbors arrived, usually carrying a plate of something delicious and freshly made. This ritual of wonderful offerings not only occurred at my grandmother’s death, but every funeral I can remember growing up in the 1950s and sixties in New England. I learned to expect the arrival of Aunt Elsie’s Parker House Rolls whenever a relative died.

A writer shared in a recent blog her opinion that we don’t speak enough about grief in the U.S. This is probably true. But it’s difficult to describe the numbing experience of grief and even more challenging to put words to the circular, non-linear fashion in which healing takes place. The wisdom behind the ancient custom of bringing food to the bereaved might seem trivial, but I believe it has to do with the bearer’s acknowledgment of grief; the instant knowledge and reaction that the grieving person’s attention will be focused elsewhere. The person who offers food assumes that the aggrieved may not be able to think to the body’s nourishment because the pain of loss and the details following a death will occupy them for the immediate future.

I believe in rituals to help us live through such times. As light as it may seem to bring a cake or a baked chicken to someone who is grieving, it is the symbolic behavior of “offering” that is important; the acknowledgement that the griever needs sustenance and comfort. In the aftermath, when the food is gone and the dishes are washed, when the antique Limoge china has been put back in the cabinet until the next special event, when the linen tablecloth is washed and put away for the next Thanksgiving Dinner, there is the special silence of the griever’s future without the one who has departed. And, food can once again enter into the healing process.

I recently attended a group offered by our local hospice for people who were grieving the loss of a loved one. I went because I’m trying to remember and understand how I healed over and over from the many deaths in my family. At the meeting, I found myself surrounded by people in the raw stage of grief in which tears come frequently and without warning. When I asked if people had a sense of what made them feel better, a man whose wife died five months ago said: “I’d like to be invited out for dinner and feel as if I can just talk without trying to censor myself or feel as if I’m saying too much. I probably won’t eat much, but I like to speak at a table with food between us.”

Dreaming of food and recipes was a survival mechanism for the undernourished and starving women in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Terezin. They miraculously compiled a cookbook that survived based on their memory of recipes while they were interred. “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin,” is an amazing compilation of drawings, recipes and snippets of memory. Michael Berenbaum of the United States Holocaust Research Institute, says in the introduction that, “recalling recipes was an act of discipline that required them to suppress their current hunger and to think of the ordinary world before the camps _ and perhaps to dare to dream of a world after the camps.”

The existence of this book, compiled from sheets of faded writing by many hands, is a testament to the healing power of just the thought of sharing food – even when there is nothing tangible to share except the fantasy of a future.