Cooking as Coping: How to Grapple With Grief During the Holiday Season

When loved ones pass on, how does our relationship to foods they loved and cooked change?
By Nneka M. Okona
November 24, 2020

My dear friend Precious was a pescatarian. When we met in graduate school many years ago, it was one of the first things I learned about her other than her love of poetry and drawing. Before her death in the summer of 2017, we spent the bulk of our friendship connecting over meals. Sometimes we even cooked together—her making eggplant Parmesan and me making fresh pasta from scratch as we shared a bottle of wine. Her death felt like the death of communion, of connecting over food with someone who is able to peer into your soul and call it all beautiful. I stopped eating out because eating alone felt too painful.

Because she died right when the seasons were starting to change, when the bridge towards chilly air and crunchy leaves smattering underneath your feet as you walked was shortening, I found myself craving warm things as I grieved. Soups that simmered on the stove in my baby blue Dutch oven, stews thickened through the patience of time, never-ending cups of Earl grey tea through which the warmth from my mug I bundled my hands around comforting my soul.

And so, whenever this time of year shows up, when the hours of daylight seem to disappear as soon as I wake up in the late morning, I think of her. I think of the heavy cloud of grief that was my everyday existence in the not so distant past and how when I felt so far away from the rest of the world, far away from myself even, I turned to food. In those wordless, empty days when I avoided the comfort and care of most everyone I knew, because it was all too much. Grieving was too much. Showing up bereaved and not okay was too much.

Back then, soft, mushy things that could be easily thrashed about in my mouth were my favorite. I made massive pans of baked pastas and casseroles although I was only cooking for myself. My logic was because I seldom had the energy to cook, I should capitalize on it and cook as much as possible to eat on for days to come. I baked, too, although to anyone who is willing to listen I declare how horrendous my baking skills are. In my kitchen, there were often bags of hardened biscuits and skillet cornbread in plastic bags skittered about on the counters. I did the best I could during what felt like an unrelenting period of heaviness. Especially as Thanksgiving and Christmas roared closer.

There's no question that this holiday season will feel heavier for a lot more of us. This year has been an unprecedented one of collective losses. We are not only grieving the lives we formerly knew due to a pandemic but for some loved ones who are no longer with us—while still feeling pressured to indulge in cooking the way we have always for this time of year. Life is simply not the same anymore. That acceptance can be both burdensome and in other ways healing. In grasping what is, we have the opportunity to hold our grief with compassion, tenderness, a little bit of grace. And to use cooking to do so. Here's some tips from both me and nutritionist Crystal Hadnott.

Know that the first few holidays will be hard

The first few holidays after a friend, family member, or other loved one has died can be the hardest. In the time of year when everyone is gathering and breaking bread together, the sobering realities of what loss has come to men are made tangible. There's an empty chair where they would've sat. The lack of their presence. No hug to be taken from them. Expect those first few ones to be difficult and emotional. Plan for it even.

Hadnott, who has lost both her mother and her daughter in recent years, thinks preparing for the loneliness and sadness you might feel is essential. "The first thing that most people think they need to do is find another set of people to replace their loved ones," she said. "You get all the invitations because people don't want you to be by yourself. My big lesson learned is instead of filling that hole with other stuff, really sitting in that hole and experiencing it. Owning those feelings and honoring the memories of my loved ones I have."

Make cooking a ritual of remembrance

Though cooking without a loved one by your side may feel hollow, look at it as a practice in reconnecting with them. A ritual of remembrance even. One of the last meals I cooked for my dear friend was shrimp scampi. I also prepared a meatless charcuterie board. Although none of those meals are typically holiday ones, this time of year, I typically replicate the same meal.

Hadnott does the same. Through previous to this year she ate mostly raw, this year she's shifted to eating more cooked foods. And when she does cook, she does so donning her mother's apron. Her rationale is that she feels closer to her, almost like she is channeling her energy into whatever dish she chooses to cook.

Think of ways you can do the same. Is there a dish or snack your loved one adored or often cooked? Recreate the best you can and look at it as quality time spent with someone you miss.

Create new (food) traditions that feel good

Another way of contending with your grief, in sitting with it when it comes to food, is creating new traditions that feel good. New traditions that honor your loved ones in their essence. To build upon the last tip, is there a particular dish or food that they cooked that you loved to eat that you can anchor a holiday meal around? Have a collection of their cherished recipes written down somewhere? Use those as inspiration to include them and their memories into each holiday going forward.

For Hadnott, whose mother hailed from Louisiana, the day after Thanksgiving she's choosing to make a massive pot of seafood gumbo—lobster, shrimp, crab legs, crawfish, and a little andouille sausage too—in the way her mother did. "Although I'm only cooking for me and my nephew, it's still going to give me that feeling as if I'm having a gathering of a group of people. [Cooking] is how I'm planning to deal with my grief and feeling like I'm giving myself some level of control."

Give yourself (and others) grace, kindness, and compassion

Grief is akin to waves of an ocean's shore. Waves rise and fall, on their own time, changing the gritty sand that was before desolate and dry. Grief—and contemplating the losses to follow—is unpredictable in its wake, no certainty at all when the impact on your life will be felt. But the holiday season, a time of year when communal gatherings are the norm, can be a cruel time to remember the voids that exist due to the loss of people.

In whatever comes up, give yourself grace. Give yourself the same kindness, compassion and patience as you would extend to a dear friend. Loss is never easy. Grappling with what to do with the love you still hold for someone no longer with us is no small feat either. But you can cook. You can create meaning in food that is a comfort to you, now and forever as you journey through loss.

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