“It happens when we enter the joy and the sorrow of the people we love, and we join together at the table to feed one another and be fed, and while it’s not strictly about food, it doesn’t happen without it. Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another. It’s no accident that when a loved one dies, the family is deluged with food. The impulse to feed is innate. Food is a language of care, the thing we do when traditional language fails us, when we don’t know what to say, when there are no words to say.” (Shauna Niequist, p. 14 of “On Bread and Wine,” Bread and Wine)
My wife’s Grandma, Ouma Maxie, from which she derives her name, passed away somewhat suddenly, albeit peacefully, a few nights ago, throwing our busy lives into chaotic disarray. The grieving process falls suddenly, like an unexpected grey rain soaking through our shirts with gentle ferocity, seemingly unaware of deadlines, sickness, and inconvenience, the slow dawning of permanent relational loss. As David Crowder sings mournfully, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” While our family is grateful for the peaceful rest and inexpressible joy that Ouma Maxie now experiences in the fullness of Jesus’ presence, her absence is acutely felt ‘on this side,’ a literal chair standing empty at the family table, reminding us that her sweet soul is gone.
And so, our family makes the trek across South Africa this weekend for her funeral, to remember her life, honouring her character as we share stories of her felt presence in our family. While many of the rituals and symbols associated with her memorial will be familiar (testimonies of remembrance, heartfelt prayers for the family, the finality of burial in a coffin), for us, her family, it will be particular and unique – the loss of our mother, grandmother, sister, and friend.
The place where this unique particularisation will most deeply be shared? Around the family table, whether literal or symbolic. We will gather together, sharing physical proximity to shoulder common loss, all in the company of comfort food. While rarely considered, this intimacy will most likely take place while sitting around the same table Ouma Maxie once graced, mourning her loss while beginning the slow journey of making peace with her passing.
The table facilitates this shared suffering greater than almost any other common item in the family home. It brings together all who have lost, unifying us around a space where relational connection can take place. It creates a holy space where loss can be processed, laughter can be heard, and memories can be exchanged. What a marvellous and rare place this truly is!