Across cultural and religious norms, food has been symbolic for attempts to heal the hurt. Death leaves a hole. Some are far deeper and filled with more despair than others.
The loss of a parent, a child, a spouse, a close friend, and/or the loss of a pet companion commonly leaves a feeling of emptiness. This emptiness may well engulf body and soul. Who to lean on? Who to pick up the role that has, literally, turned to dust? How to withstand the pain that cannot (and should not) be ignored?
While nothing can undo the loss, the benevolence of others can remind those who grieve that there are others who acknowledge the loss and understand that nourishment , in the form of visits, tributes, and gifts of food can remind mourners that life will and must go on.
In ancient times Egyptians mummified foodstuffs and placed them in tombs so that the passage into the next world would be more comfortable for the individual who had died. Cultures that celebrate The Day of the Dead prepare traditional and favorite foods of the deceased on a specially prepared altar constructed in honor of that person. In certain groups in Judaism, the bagel is believed to ward off the evil eye and the hard boiled egg represents the cyclical nature of life. In Japan there are those who believe that salt deposited in the four corners of the home will benefit the living both physically and spiritually.
There are claims that carbohydrates are of the greatest benefit at times of mourning. This could be a problem for those on a carbohydrate-avoiding diet. Macaroni and cheese and lasagna are favorites. In the southern part of the United States deviled eggs and fried chicken are favored, while in Oaxaca, Mexico, mole, which is complex, sweet, and fatty, is often the chosen offering.
Fortified with the knowledge (and belief) that cooking within a group or community binds participants as they work together to deliver nourishment to those in need, mealtrain.com has delivered more than 13 million meals worldwide. Operating out of Burlington, Vermont, mealtrain.com has posted the steps that lead to a successful structure that ensures participation, and confirms that the target person or group will receive the appropriate fare that will meet their specific needs.
Food preferences, drop off times and locations, allergies and other medical concerns, such as diabetes are taken into consideration while organizing the team. Calendars are prepared and participants are reminded of their commitment so that there is clarity and accuracy regarding deliveries.
Some suggest bringing comestibles in a throw away container. Others offer the idea that if and when the mourner is ready to re-enter everyday life, returning a dish is a good excuse for a visit.
In Minneapolis, another group, Eat for Equity, encourages community support and charitable donations through gatherings that connect food growers, preparers, donators, experts on sustainability, individuals from all segments of the community to provide, not only communal cooking and distribution, but also to emphasize the importance of inclusion and generosity. There is an emphasis on goods that are grown and produced locally.
The very ritual of breaking bread together at times of grief traverses cultural and geographic divides. In the Jewish tradition it is called Sedat Havara’ah, or meal of condolence. In times of mourning, many Chinese avoid the consumption of meat. In Black communities, there is a traditional repast after the burial. Meals on Wheels caters wakes In Brevard County, Florida.
There are also customs about who does the cooking and when. In orthodox Jewish households, the mourners are not supposed to cook at all during the time of shiva (the seven days following the burial). In the Filipino culture, family is not supposed to cook and guests are not supposed to take leftovers home with them. In many Muslim homes, the period of mourning lasts 40 days and food is delivered for the initial three days of bereavement.
Sometimes the only time that friends and family congregate is at a time of death. In some ways, that may be a daunting thought. In other ways, it can be consoling to know that members of a community (familial and otherwise) will be there to come to share in coming to terms with a particular loss.
In one family, a nephew insisted on getting the family to pose for a group photo at his aunt’s funeral. He received a mixed reaction. On one hand, this might have been the last occasion for this particular group to gather. Diversely, there were family members who did not wish to commemorate the loss in this particular way. It is helpful to understand that within a group there may be varied wishes and expectations. At times of intense emotionality it is advantageous to have a peacemaker in the group.
To state the obvious, there is no one way to commemorate a death. When folks lived in homogeneous communities, there was no need for discussion as to how to proceed. As the world has become increasingly mobile and digital, the “rules” have become unclear. This actuality calls for patience and a willingness to allow for flexibility.
A death can cause an avalanche of deterioration in relationships. Such occurrences exacerbate the pain. Mad, which is activating feels better than sad, which can feel helpless. When an avoidant path is chosen, emotional ties are challenged. Some groups, especially families, never re-establish the bonds that heal and keep them whole.
For those who wonder how to help at a time of loss, the best road to take is to ask. The funeral director, if there is one, will understand what is customarily done. Help that meets individual needs is appreciated and held dear. One widow, who had two large dogs that needed to be bathed, was delighted when a group of her friends volunteered to wash the dogs for the next 6 months. Her husband had been the dog cleaner, and she was happy to have that chore taken off her plate at that particular time.
Coming to terms with loss is always a challenge. Just showing up with something nourishing (whatever form that takes) is always a good idea.
“Comfort Foods for Those Who Are Grieving”. Blog.obitree.com
Ferguson, D. (08/17/16) “When Grief Strikes Food Can be a Gift From the Gods” the guardian.com
Kendrick, J (01/22/2020) “How to Help a Friend in Need: Throw a Cooking Party” huffpost.com
Kennerly, B (03/28/15) “Taking Food to Bereaved Still Popular” floridatoday.com
Rhodes, D. (11/01/12) “Food During Times of Grief” smithsonianmag.com
Van der Mere, E (02/25/19) “How Different Cultures Grieve With Food” huffpost.com