One of our neighbors died unexpectedly a few days ago. And in yesterday’s newspaper was the announcement of the death of another neighbor’s adult son. In the first case, I immediately went downstairs to hug the wife as she wept while relating the tragic details of finding her husband’s body that morning. Our other neighbor’s situation is different. She is extremely private and the family is somewhat estranged yet I know she also grieves the loss of her loved one.
The custom of taking food to a grieving family is one of long standing, but one must use discretion. When a young wife of our acquaintance died many years ago, the neighbors and church family inundated the husband and three small children with so much food that they were overwhelmed and much was wasted. (Always remember: bring food in disposable containers, and smaller portions are often most welcome unless crowds are expected.) In a book describing how food is associated with mourning in a variety of cultures, Lisa Rogak writes, “food goes a long way in helping survivors cope with their loss,” and she even includes a variety of culturally appropriate recipes.
What food shall I bring to the neighbors? For the widow on that first day of shock and mourning, I simply arranged fresh fruit in cupcake liners along with pre-wrapped small cheese balls and a few crackers. Just enough for nibbling when sorrow has stolen the appetite. For our neighbor across the hall I have a small loaf of homemade bread in the freezer and will leave it outside her door with a note.
As I reflected on how food has been part of the healing process in my own grief, I thought of three very unique offerings. When we returned home from hearing the announcement that our son’s cancer was terminal and death only days or weeks away, our pastor arrived to talk with Rick with one perfectly round, shiny red apple in his hand. No words—not even prayers or Bible reading—could remove our pain, but somehow that perfect apple announced, “This is not all there is.”
That same week friends who knew our budget was strained brought four T-bone steaks for outdoor grilling. That was the last full meal our son would eat and not a scrap was left on any plate.
Within days a woman came to our front door with a restaurant-sized pot of soup. This woman and her family were not especially religious, and she could not have comfortably said, “We’re praying for you.” She and her husband owned a large hotel so she had the chef prepare the soup and said to me, “Here. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that these three expressions of care remain vivid in my memory after all these years. Sometimes soup, steak and apples say from the heart what the lips can’t quite express.