I am the youngest of three sisters. A few years ago, my oldest sister died of cancer. The time of her illness was taxing for many reasons, one of which was the traveling required near and far to help care for her. When I was deep inside it, this period felt like an endless, fathomless expanse of push and pull, of never quite being where I was. My mind and heart were half at home and half with her, whichever place I happened, physically, to be. And then it ended, as illusions of endlessness often do, and we tumbled, as a family, into the truly endless and fathomless landscape of grief.
It’s impossible to overstate how welcome and sustaining and valuable your thoughtful offering can be when a person or a family is taxed in this way.
I can’t say that I had many conscious expectations about grief, having spent two years fervently hoping it would not be part of my near future. But I suppose, as I tumbled, I expected that the shift would be about the falling away of all the tasks and other distracting things mixed up in the tumult of her sickness and dying, about finding the pure sadness of loss. This was true, but it turned out to demand a great deal more time and labor than I imagined it would. Managing through an illness involves a lot of work, most of it not easy. But grief in the aftermath of one is not an exemption from labor. Grief is work: arduous, demanding, tiring effort, especially in its early stages.
Just about every moment of light in my life—from the moment I received the first phone call about her diagnosis to the period after her death—had light in it because of the goodness of friends. We were so thoroughly fed by the steel network of community around us that I lost count of my blessings. Already a big believer in the value of friends cooking for friends, I became essentially devout.
For months and months as I traveled and then as I faced the reality that I didn’t need to travel any longer, friendship arrived at our doorstep as bags of bagels and baskets of fruit to fill my children’s lunchboxes; as soups to freeze for later that tasted of an old friend’s familiar hand in the kitchen and a new one’s thunderclap of empathic feeling; as full gorgeous meals plunked right onto the table; and as the mailbox surprises of a bar of spicy Mexican hot chocolate, its sweetness carrying a welcome bite of heat, and a box of hand-picked lemons sent from warmer climates to remind me that somewhere the sun was shining.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, someone who loves us got off a plane from a weeklong business trip and labored to make my family a koliva, a Greek food of mourning with deep pagan roots, traditionally eaten on the ninth day of grieving. Seeds and sweetness and spices were all beautifully arranged in the bowl she presented to us, adorned with blossoms though it was deep winter. The notion, she said, is to take in the seeds in the name of the departed. Once consumed, you carry on in the spirit of that person, whom you offer eternal life through your continued existence, I reckon, until someone eats a koliva for you, and on, and on.
It’s impossible to overstate how essential all this was to our survival.
In case you have never been on the receiving end of this kind of support, and are worried your ministrations may be unwelcome or intrusive, let me just repeat that last bit again: It’s impossible to overstate how welcome and sustaining and valuable your thoughtful offering can be when a person or a family is taxed in this way.
Positive psychologist and grief counselor Maria Sirois says that what is needed to support the grieving is the ability to “bear witness without flinching from darkness,” and this feels like a tall order to some. Many people are alarmed and alienated by other people’s grief, succumbing to a kind of paralysis in the face of it. Others don’t want to intrude or bother, fearing that they might compound the stress of an already stressful time with unwanted intrusions.
It’s so unlikely that your edible offering will be a bother. One beautifully liberating thing that I can testify to is that the scale of the delivery is basically unimportant. The bar of chocolate in an envelope, the giant bowl of hand-arranged seeds festooned with flowers, the homemade gingerbread people and the store-bought bagels, the pocket-sized gestures and the trunk-loads of food all made indelible impressions. Each one was a strand in the rope that tethered me to the land of the living and together they eventually pulled me to my feet again, altered but upright.
If you know the recipient well, it’s likely you can think of something that will either save the day for them (like packed lunchboxes for their kids, or meals timed and constructed to the particular needs and tastes of their household) or simply remind them, gently, of pleasure at a time when pleasures are both scarce and suspect. If you don’t know your recipients, you can use your own senses as a guide. Mine suggest that nothing so spicy as to be super-confronting (unless you know they are craving it) nor too bland to be unappealing (since appetite may be low) should be offered. Food that is not too decadent, presented simply, and packing a lot of sustenance into each serving is just the thing for people who may not be remembering to eat.
Just showing up in this type of situation is the key, so let that free you from thoughts that you have to bake bread from wheat you thresh yourself. You can wing your way through the grocery store, pulling together a small collection of the items you think may appeal or be of use, and odds are that you will be on the mark. It’s the fact that you are not flinching from their darkness that your recipients will be nourished by—and will remember.
—Janet Reich Elsbach