“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This week I made house calls on two friends who are having serious health problems; I brought gifts of food with me each time. There’s something ancient in this process — I can picture my grandmothers sending me to carry food to sick neighbors. They seemed happy to do it, and seeing the faces of the recipients who were grateful for their kindness, made a lasting impression on me.
Grief can be a lonely journey. When people are grieving a loss —whether that loss is due to illness or a death in the family — they may crave human companionship, the comfort of good-tasting food, and the reassurance that they are being truly “seen” by others. In the early days after a loss, mourners may not have the energy to try and fill these needs, so it is doubly appreciated when their needs are met by a gift of food that is delivered to them.
Food carries with it many different meanings, some of them cultural; for example, food can be an expression of identity, community, artistry, caregiving, and creativity. In the case of my grandmothers, their gifts of food conveyed their belief that “good neighbors” looked out for others and had compassion for those who were suffering or struggling. They honed this empathetic response directly from their own immigrant experiences when they came from Italy to the United States around 1890.
Taking homemade bread in a basket to a neighbor, or carrying a pot of soup carefully wrapped in a wide cloth folded into a knot for a handle, gave me a real sense of mission and purpose. As I carefully transported the food and its intended good-hearted generosity to its destination, I served as a family representative. I sensed that I was doing something important, not only for the people receiving the food, but for those waiting for me to return home.
As I grew up, there were other occasions in which food played a significant role in a ritual of grief, such as after a funeral when family members would gather at the home of an aunt or an uncle and contribute delicious traditional foods and beverages to the table. The ritual provided fellowship, comfort, and the opportunity to eat, drink, and tell stories of the deceased together. To say that the foods were healing elements would not be an exaggeration.
Having learned these lessons well, I now carry on the food sharing traditions of my grandmothers to family, friends, and neighbors. I know firsthand how giving a gift of food —whether homemade or store bought— to someone with a broken heart can provide emotional support, nourishment for the physical body, and sustenance for the soul. The gift conveys a powerful message that the mourner is not alone in his sorrow, and that the giver has been transformed from the role of spectator to participant through a loving act of service.
Elaine Voci, Ph.D.
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