Food As Solace

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.

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 week-long 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. People 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.

By Janet Reich Elsbach

Adapted from Extra Helping by Janet Reich Elsbach © 2018 by Janet Reich Elsbach. Illustrations © 2018 by Anna Brones. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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