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Comfort food

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

When Lindsay Ostrom’s newborn son, Afton, died on 1 January 2017 (he had been born the previous day), she says it was food brought by friends that helped her take the first steps out of the darkest moments of grief and slowly tethered her back to reality. On an episode of ‘The Food Chain’ on the BBC World Service, she told Emily Thomas about how food can sometimes be the most powerful way to communicate with the grieving.

“People don’t know what to say and they don’t know what the appropriate action might be,” said Lindsay. “I even feel that myself now, even though I’ve been through the traumatic experience of grief and am pretty well acquainted with grief. Yet, when I hear about someone losing someone that they are close to, my first reaction is ‘oh shoot, what do I say?’”

She continued: “I think food says the bottom line thing, which is I care about you. When you provide food for someone, you are telling them that you see they are in a hard spot and want to help them continue to heal and to to feel loved and comforted, but you don’t necessarily have to have the words for that.”

“A pan of lasagne brought to someone’s door can say potentially a lot more and maybe even can say something more accurately then the words that you might write in a sympathy card.”

In a Guardian blog from a couple of years ago, writer and musician David Ferguson, who lives in Georgia in the US said: “I don’t know if it’s a southern thing, a farm community thing, or maybe it’s just old fashioned, but where I come from, when somebody dies, the casserole dishes start coming out almost before anyone’s called the coroner.”

David says that when his mother died, friends and relatives brought mountains of food. ‘Cakes, pies, loaves of homemade bread, crocks of macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, chilli, barbecue, homemade ice cream and a profusion of casseroles’.

“The bounty serves a dual purpose,” he explained. “The grieving family is freed of having to shake off their heavy sadness in order to cook for themselves and they also have a variety of treats on hand to offer the parade of well-wishers who will come to pay their respects.”

When David’s friend drowned suddenly, he remembered a chicken casserole made by his Aunt Faye at that time and rang her for the recipe.

“I remembered each bit feeling like it was steadily warming me up from the inside out, restoring me to warmth and life and providing some of the first real pleasure I’d had in what felt like eons.”

He delivered the casserole to his friend’s wife, along with a chocolate meringue pie and, wasn’t even halfway home when a text arrived saying how amazing the casserole was.

“While our powers to soothe heartbreak are limited, we offer what gifts we can,” David said. “In this way, I like to think we can strike little victories against the pain and darkness that inevitably come with being alive.”

We know through talking to members of our Bereavement Support Group that the small gestures of delivering some homemade soup or a cake during such a difficult time can mean so much. In addition, some members enjoy going out for meals together, as it’s something they are missing doing with a partner.

One lady who lives in Crowborough remembers being at home the day after her young daughter had died and hearing a knock at the door. A neighbour – somebody she didn’t know that well – simply handed her a card and a plate of delicious looking chocolate brownies.  

“I was really touched,” she remembers. “The lady could have just put a card through the letterbox, that would have been kind. But, the fact that she’d taken time to make the brownies and also been brave enough to ring our bell when others were hesitant to do that, really meant a lot.”

Somebody else remembers a friend turning up with a homemade casserole which she’d divided up into individual portions for the freezer for those days when they didn’t feel up to cooking.

For some people, cooking is also a way of dealing with their own grief. Terry Hartill, a contestant on this year’s Great British Bake Off on Channel 4, has been baking to help him cope with grief after the death of his wife last year.

According to an article in The Daily Mirror his mother-in-law Marion says: “They had been such a happy couple and married for so long and when we lost her, Terry was heartbroken. But the show is something nice for him to do and it’s helping him cope with his grief.”

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