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Stateside Podcast: Holiday grief and the healing power of a shared meal

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Stefan Vladimirov
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Food is a powerful trigger for memories, and sharing that food with people we love can be one way of coping with the grief of loss.

Are you as excited as we are to be back around the table with vaccinated friends and family this Thanksgiving? Last year, we did our best, but it just wasn't the same.

At the same time, the holidays can be a potent reminder of people we've lost and the grief left behind in their place. Maybe this year’s big dinner is the first time you’re directly coming to terms with someone’s death. Or maybe no one can make the green bean casserole like your mom used to make it. Under circumstances like these, traditions can be a minefield.

For Bon Appétit senior staff writer Alex Beggs, the holidays are about holding our grief and joy in equal measure, accompanied by a hearty serving of family favorites.

"Grief is a pretty lonely experience, it's kind of happening in your own head," Beggs reflected. "So, when you're sitting around the table with other people who are also experiencing that or have for the past 11 years, you know, you're not sobbing into your enchiladas, but it's just kind of like yet another time we have to realize that we've got to just keep on doing this thing, which is living."

Beggs' mother passed away some years ago, and her 91-year-old grandfather died of COVID-19 last December. One of the ways her family remembers the people they've lost is with chicken mole enchiladas at the Original Mexican Café, which has been a mainstay on Galveston Island, Texas for more than a century. She recently wrote about that tradition for Bon Appétit in a story tiled "Ghosts at the Table."

But Beggs told us she also remembers her lost loved ones in smaller moments—like the flan she and her sister make when they get together or the White Russian she makes to remember her mother, who drank one every night. While she said that her family doesn't necessarily spend a lot of time talking about their grief, just the act of sharing a meal or a favorite drink becomes a way to connect to those people they've lost.

"I don't know if it's the sensory thing—I'm smelling and tasting and eating—that just can really transport you in a way talking can't. That's tied up in grief in so many ways."

Beggs was also quick to mention that remembering lost loved ones during the holidays doesn't preclude you from making new, joyful memories in the present moment.

And as she writes in her piece:

"All this sadness can threaten to take away from your having a good time. My advice: Don’t let it."

Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

If you like what you hear on the pod, consider supporting our work.

Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

April Van Buren
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.