What I Ate the First Week After My Daughter Died

The true meaning of comfort food

Jen McGahan
Sep 23, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash (rotated)

It was a Monday. That first morning, a few hours after the homicide people rang the doorbell, I wailed on the tile floor as my friend lifted the edge of my red velour bathrobe and covered my knees. Karen’s one hand patted my back, while the other covered me, preserving what was left of my dignity. Strong Charles finally lifted me and propped me upright, urged me to make some phone calls.

And then people started arriving. I put on clothes, woke my son Henry, and asked him to walk around the block with me. I gave him the terrible news.

In the afternoon, Beth brought over butternut squash soup. The food train had started, but I wasn’t thinking about food.

I was thinking what a long life this would be without Katie.

When someone dies, this is what people do. They show up. They bring food. They cover you.

The first day was butternut soup

I remember how it felt to swallow, that’s all. Months later I found a covered glass bowl of butternut squash soup in the freezer and recalled how it felt to stare into the bowl and dip a spoon into the savory-sweet golden-orange liquid. I don’t remember tasting it, though.

Someone brought whiskey, that first day, so I had two or three shots and lay down on my bed with my best friend and cried until I slept.

More soup, and sweeping

The soup was in a round white cardboard container, brought by a family friend who folded Katie into their travel plans that year they went to Costa Rica for spring break. We got her a passport at the last minute. When your kid gets invited to travel with another family, a parent can take some credit, but really, it’s the kid who’s cool. She was loved by many.

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Katie in Costa Rica. Image courtesy of the author.

The soup was day-old by then. Maybe there were some tomatoes.

Karen returned early in the morning and let herself in before I woke. She helped me sweep the front porch clean. She watered my plants. Local friends tag teamed until my sister arrived.

When someone dies, this is what people do. They show up. They bring food. They cover you.

Chicken and Zucchini

On the third day, my hairstylist and her husband brought a large aluminum container of chicken and roasted vegetables. It was the most food I had ever seen in one pan. I’ve known Susan for years, but I’d met Dwayne only twice before, with my hair foiled up in her salon chair. He sat on my leather sofa, spidering his fingertips, while my sister and hairstylist made conversation. I remember thinking how odd this must be for him, a retiree, a golfer, accompanying his wife on unpleasant business. How odd for all of us. We exchanged some polite words. I tried to recall the names of the local golf courses to make him more comfortable.

I wasn’t hungry. My people were coming by then, arriving in ones and fives and twos, spilling out from vans, stopping in after school, and I had something to offer them to eat which was good. I never appreciated roasted chicken more.

“Susan made this. Do you know Susan? She can cut curly hair. The best. A great colorist, too.” We were once in a BNI group together. Givers gain. I could at least refer her some business as if life were normal; as if I could turn this whole dreadful week into a simple exchange that would make things right.

This could never be paid back, though, so what was there to do but to lean into social norms and accept incoming food.

A pie is always welcome

My sister and I went to Target that night to buy Katie some clothes for her “private showing” on Friday. We still weren’t allowed into her apartment, so I had to shop for her last outfit. This was somewhat of a relief, not having to choose from Katie’s vast array of clothes. (Fringe, sparkles, PJs?) They didn’t have to be the perfect clothes. Not like a burial. With a burial, I would always be thinking, this is how a 3-week-old corpse decays; this is how a 15-week-old corpse decays…. I can’t go there.

Katie’s dad and I settled on cremation. These clothes would burn with her body and casket at some point soon enough — all at once. I’m the mom, and I wanted her comfortable.

We would incinerate her beautiful body, her fine shoulders, her leg muscles, her delicate hands, her frame, her turned-out out toes. She will be lit by fire, and I will never see it. I will trust someone to do that. Would they tenderly tuck her hair under her neck or spread it pretty over her shoulders; adjust the nosegay against her tiny fingers? I’d never know. I thought of all the funeral pyres in all the movies and wondered if that would be better. To see it burn.

Later that evening (late, later than a friend would normally drop by, but who was watching the clock that week?) a friend brought fruit pie and wine, but I don’t remember what kind of fruit, only that it was pie. We put it in the garage fridge but opened the bottle of wine in front of a crackling fire.

It was a cold night in early February. These moments brought comfort. The warmth, the music, the soup, and the hugs we could still give each other pre-COVID, back in early February of 2020. I lay Katie’s clothes out on the floor to show people.

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Katie’s last outfit. Image courtesy of the author.

“I like the way you pour,” Kat said, as I split the bottle between three glasses. We all, everyone there in the room sitting in front of the fireplace, had a future. I made a mental note.

It had been 5 days since I cut a vegetable.

The least I could do was make a salad

By the fourth day, we were choosing songs for the funeral. I told Scott, the guitarist for the memorial service, he should sing Dancing in the Sky for her celebration of life. This was a song we listened to in front of the fire the night before. “What do you do up in Heaven?” the lyrics go. I don’t know what Katie does up in Heaven, but we can guess.

Scott came over after we met at the stone church up on the hill, where Katie once played a piano recital. I made him a salad that Friday afternoon, taking comfort in preparing someone else a meal for once. It had been 5 days since I cut a vegetable.

My job that day was to put together a slideshow of pictures of Katie, but I stopped for a while and chopped carrots, celery, and chicken. I tore lettuce and mixed a dressing. We talked and I bided my time while we ate together, which was something; eating the same thing with another person, a napkin and fork laid next to the salad bowl and serving tongs. The blessing of prepared food and time to eat it. We listened to music.

Shared meals would still happen in this new life without Katie. My sister reminded me I had work to do. The flash drive was due at the church before five.

I don’t remember Saturday’s menu

I’m sure I ate something, but by this time I was clearly not a teetotaler anymore.

One of my friends from the gym started a meal train. I was told to log on and see. The first delivery was home-made spaghetti brought by one of Katie’s childhood friend’s moms, who’s Italian, and whose daughter in is pre-med.

By this time, there were dozens of people in and out. There was laughter. Everyone loved the authentic tomato sauce.

The memorial

The smorgasbord of food at Katie’s memorial, made by a chef friend of my ex-husband’s, was over the top: roast beef wrapped crudités, cream puffs, sandwiches, meatballs, two cakes, which had such a celebratory appearance, I couldn’t bring myself to consume it.

The spread was too much. At another time, I’d have wanted to try everything, but this beautiful food was merely for decoration, it seemed. Everyone was politely not-gorging themselves despite the obvious abundance.

Food was just another pretty spectacle to make small talk about on a day that made no sense. Like the ornamental trees budding much too early for spring, while the oak outside my window had only just last week lost all its leaves, everything seemed rushed, and in slow-motion all at once. The clouds rolled through and the creek rushed cold. My girl’s life was tied up with a bow, shipshape, as nature carried on.

I still can’t get over it.

After the service, daylight fell on the drive home and we saw cars parked near the low water crossing on Bee Creek Road. A group of kids had gone to the creek Katie loved and had their own dedication. Back at the house, we sent families home with beautiful food.

We nibbled on it for days afterward. Meatballs only last so long.

The food train kept rolling

All through February and into the first week of March, the food kept coming. Every few days someone would come by, the mother of one of Katie’s friends, or a daily gym friend who never knew my daughter except through a Facebook post or two.

Some good lady from the community would drop off a meal for me and the boys, and visit, awkwardly. I’d share wine while she took the time to listen to the story of Katie’s death, at least what we knew of it, and all we still didn’t know. I’d show them pictures; Katie’s art; dance memorabilia with dance-mom-friends from way back.

I finally sent a grateful email letting everyone on the train know we were done. It was time for me to get my ass in gear and start cooking again. Katie’s ashes were ready to be picked up at the funeral home, and COVID shut down what was left of life as we know it, which was my cue to finish the thank you notes. “I’ll never forget your kindness,” etc. which was the truest thing I’ll ever write.

If it weren’t for these people and the age-old custom of showing up with food, I might be drooling on the tile floor, still.

Comfort food reaches where kind words can’t. If I could bake pies for everyone who got me through those first weeks, I’d even still be rolling out the crust.

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Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

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