Monday, November 28, 2011

what I'm reading: congee for the grieving from Emily Post and Joan Didion

If you're not sure how to help someone who's grieving, Joan Didion directs you to the practical wisdom of an earlier time: the chapter on funerals in Emily Post's 1922 Book of Etiquette (which you can read for free on line here). She writes,

The tone, one of unfailing specificity, never flags. The emphasis remains on the practical. The bereaved must be urged to "sit in a sunny room", preferably one with an open fire. Food, but "very little food", may be offered on a tray: tea, coffee, bouillon, a little thin toast, a poached egg. Milk, but only heated milk: "Cold milk is bad for someone who is already overchilled." As for further nourishment, "The cook may suggest something that appeals usually to their taste—but very little should be offered at a time, for although the stomach may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order."...

A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral. The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming of the family. "It is also well to prepare a little hot tea or broth," Mrs. Post advised, "and it should be brought them upon their return without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need."

There is something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions...As I read it, I remember how cold I had been in New York Hospital on the night John died...Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world where mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view...

In the end Emily Post's 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.
Joan Didion The Year of Magical Thinking 59-60

image is by rickyqi at flickr

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