CNS PHOTO | GREGORY SHEMITZ
A woman holds a tray of brownies next to a sympathy card from members of a parish consolation ministry.
Often after the death of the loved one of a friend, neighbour or co-worker, people are at a loss for what to say or do but they might be quick to whip up a batch of brownies or a chicken casserole.
And that is just the right thing – for the person who cooks it and the recipients – say those who have been there.
Noelle Hawton, parishioner at Nativity of Mary parish in Bloomington, Minn., said when she was unexpectedly widowed at the age of 28, she had her first experience with lots of food suddenly arriving at her doorstep.
"I had never lost anyone before and found it odd and surprising that neighbours I hadn't even met yet, as well as co-workers, were sending me food," she told Catholic News Service in an email.
What she also hadn't expected was how her home would become a central location for family members as they made plans for her husband's funeral and burial.
"That food was a godsend, as it allowed us all to eat without having to plan meals or hit the store, which none of us had the energy to do," she said.
Hawton, a senior vice president of Tunheim, a Minneapolis-based communications firm, has been quick to return the favour, saying she always brings food to someone who has experienced a death in the family; but she also makes the point to "bring it over frozen in case they have lots of fresh food they will be working to get through."
Sending a frozen meal is one tip among many that regular donors and bloggers suggest. Other suggestions include: trays of cut-up vegetables and fruit, bagels and cream cheese, sandwich trays, soups or stews, pies or casseroles. Ideally, food should be easy to transport and easy to eat. It should also hold well and freeze well.
Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and author based in Los Angeles, said "a lot of times, people have difficulty finding the right words to express their condolences, and a gift of food conveys their warm support."
She also noted that even though "the family may get more food than they or their sympathetic friends can eat, the gesture is what is important. Food is symbolic of nurturance, especially when the food is homemade. This conveys comfort to the grieving family."
The way these good-intentioned foods are presented is also key. For example, donated meals should be given in containers that do not need to be returned. The food should also be labeled and include specific heating instructions. In other words: do not put an extra burden on the receiver.
Another tip food givers should keep in mind is that they are very likely not the only ones with this idea. To avoid adding one more chicken dish to a refrigerator already filled with donated chicken pot pies donators should consider using websites that organize meals and drop-off schedules such as foodtidings.com or takethemameal.com.
These sites provide an online sign-up sheet for donated meals and post information such as food allergies and best times to drop off meals. The specific information for families is coordinated by a volunteer friend, neighbour or parishioner who coordinates the schedule on the website.
Often parishes use these sites because there needs to be some coordination for the amount of people who wish to donate.
Molly Piper, a blogger from Minneapolis, wrote tips about bringing meals to grieving friends that she learned from personal experience after her daughter was delivered stillborn at 39 weeks, and she became the recipient of many lasagnas and chocolate chip cookies.
She said bringing meals to the bereaved is "essential, really" and is a "profound ministry to the hurting."
She also advises givers not to think of the time of dropping off a meal as necessarily the chance for long discussion or commiserating because the bereaved might not be ready for that.
Piper also writes – on mollypiper.com – that there is no set timeline for bringing food to someone who is grieving.
"Most of you probably don't know anyone who lost a loved one so recently that meals are still being organized for them," she wrote.
"But you do probably know someone who endured a loss six, seven, 12 months ago. I can almost guarantee that if you called and asked to bring dinner this week, you'd bless their oven mitts off. It's never too late."