There are food guides for everything: the patisseries of Paris, Philly B.Y.O.B.s, farmers markets of California, even cat cafes around the world. But when my husband died a few years ago, and I lost my appetite and my ability to eat in a restaurant without sobbing, I realized there are none for the time when you need the most guidance: bereavement.
Day 1 post-death
Consider today a palate cleanser. You will probably eat no food today. Resume crying.
5:20 a.m.: Give up on sleep. Start coffee. Forget you started coffee. Go back to bed.
7:30: Return to the kitchen and contemplate making toast. Think: What’s the point? Make toast anyway, because intellectually you know you should eat. Note the physical difficulty of chewing and swallowing. Abandon toast.
7:45: Respond to bereavement-related calls, emails and texts for several hours.
Noon: A neighbor may arrive with pound cake.
3:45 p.m.: Following the memorial service meeting, head to a nearby diner with family. Order chicken soup, because chicken soup is right, and also the all-day big breakfast combo, because you can.
Eat one bite of pancake. Feel irrationally angry that there is not a pure maple syrup option. Feel irrationally angry at everything, especially the other customers and the waitress, who are acting normal and smiling. Don’t they know what happened?! Cry at the table.
8:45 a.m.: Wake up to a knock on the door. Open the door and discover an Edible Arrangement.
Carry your Edible Arrangement to the kitchen counter. Wonder if the fruit has been washed, and how many people’s hands touched the fruit. Wonder how the Edible Arrangers do all those shapes, particularly the zigzag honeydew wedges and pineapple daisies with cantaloupe ball centers. Do not be surprised if this is the most sustained thinking you manage all week. Eat a chocolate-covered strawberry.
Midafternoon: A friend or church person will probably drop by to pop a casserole in your refrigerator, providing reheating directions that you will promptly forget.
5:35 p.m.: Remove the casserole from the fridge. How did she say to reheat this? Is 350 degrees right? Peek under the foil. Lasagna. Should the foil be on or off to reheat? Do I care?
Forty-five minutes later: Remove the lasagna from the oven and realize you have no appetite for ribbons of meaty pasta. Comfort food is not comforting yet, only hard to digest.
Slide the lasagna into the fridge for another day, next to the untouched groceries you bought while everything was still normal. Eat cereal or takeout pho instead.
8 a.m.: Funeral day. There will probably be no breakfast, as your stomach is a spasmodic, twisted ball of nerves. While greeting guests before the service, suck on a mint.
Later: The reception. Food everywhere. Eat nothing due to nonstop condolence small talk.
After a while, escape to the powder room with a small plate of food. Break down crying while sitting on the toilet lid eating crackers schmeared with goat cheese, a bell pepper slice and a lukewarm crab cake. Consider hiding in the powder room forever.
Late afternoon: Close family and friends may gather at someone’s house for the after-party. A genius cousin will order pizza.
Someone will say something really funny. You will laugh. You may be tempted to feel guilty for laughing. Do not under any circumstances feel guilty. Feel grateful.
The pizza arrives. Take a slice. It will taste familiar and hot. It will taste … normal. It is not good for you, but somehow, in that very moment, it may be perfect.
The days afterward
There may be certain foods you never eat again: the braised creamy leeks with pancetta that only he could make, the dish made of memories so thick they hurt to swallow. There may be meals where your dining partner is an empty chair. You might burn the beef and broccoli you used to stir-fry with ease because you are stupid with grief and cannot focus.
There will be family holidays. You will eat the sweet-potato casserole with mini-marshmallows baked on top, overcooked Thanksgiving turkey crusted with thyme and sage, and warm caramel apple cobbler that you always ate but without the person who was supposed to be eating it with you. It will be hard. Do it anyway.
But before long, you will eat the entire piece of toast. Soon, you’ll stop burning the stir-fry. You’ll go to your favorite little Italian place and share bottles of wine with friends who envelop you with so much love and useless gossip that you feel nearly whole again, if only for an evening. Maybe not yet, but soon.
In the meantime, have a chocolate-covered strawberry.