If you or someone close to you has gone through a particularly difficult time, chances are you’ve heard this well-meaning question from every corner. “What can I do to help?” ask friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers—even people you barely know.
When there is an illness or a death in the family, your voicemail box will overflow with people wanting a response to this question. The concern is touching, but finding an answer can sometimes prove difficult.
When my mother first fell ill, my family and I got this question a lot. But there was a small contingent of my mom’s friends who didn’t ask—because they knew better. They knew that we were so sleep-deprived, distracted and full of grief that we couldn’t even focus on the question long enough to answer it. Instead of asking, they acted. They knew there was one thing we undoubtedly needed right then, and that was food. So they fed us.
For the whole month my mom was in the hospital, they arranged a meal drop-off every couple of days at our house. They organized a rotating group of a dozen people who cooked full-fledged meals for us and leave them in coolers on our front porch. We didn’t have to see or thank anyone who left food for us; we didn’t even have to be home.
When we arrived home late, exhausted from a day of emotional turmoil at the hospital, there was food waiting for us. There were stuffed peppers and eggplant parmesan, there were casseroles and enchiladas, there was soup and homemade bread. All of it was delicious, because we were starving and grateful to be eating a hot meal each time.
This was the most meaningful and practical gesture of care we received during that time. It not only meant that we got fed, but also that we had fewer things to worry about: What do I want to eat? Where can I get it or when will I have the time to cook it? It removed some choices from our decision-heavy days, and it sustained us in a very real way. It is easy to forget about your own needs when you’re taking care of somebody else, but that’s when those needs are all the more important to address: You cannot pour from an empty cup.
This time around, as we go through another family crisis, I am once more reminded of food’s ability to sustain and comfort us during dark times. The night after I got the phone call to come home, a friend took me out to a yoga class and to dinner at Vinaigrette, two very healthy decisions that I probably wouldn’t have made on my own. I have another faraway friend who has made it her job to check that I’m eating at regular intervals. This may seem like a small gesture, but it has a big impact—and it shows me clearly how much she cares.
If you have a friend or loved one who’s going through a crisis or a particularly emotional time, I encourage you to show your care by feeding them. Cooking them a healthy, filling meal is great—picking up take-out is fine too. Make sure you know about any allergies or dietary restrictions before you make a delivery, but don’t go out of your way to make anything gourmet or outside your culinary comfort zone; trust me when I say they will be grateful and beyond caring too much about the details. If they can leave the house for a while, taking them out for dinner will be a very appreciated gesture, as it gets them outside for a while and can make them feel like a part of the world again. If you’re far away and can’t feed them directly, you can always mail some snack food or order delivery from afar.
(As a side note: Do not bring alcohol to somebody who’s going through a crisis, and limit the number of drinks if you take them out to a bar or restaurant. Remember that alcohol is a depressant, and it is certainly not helpful if they have to make difficult decisions anytime soon.)
Food won’t fix the problem that your loved one is going through, and it may seem like a small gesture in the face of whatever they’re going through. But any crisis, no matter how awful, can be made a little more manageable with a full stomach.