Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat writes, “Act of remembrance can surface our of daily rituals, even interrupted ones. A place setting left unused at a dinner table. An oversized shoe into which we slip a foot.”
I know a woman who for months after her husband’s death kept his pajamas under her pillow. She took them from the drawer each night and returned them there in the morning. Before placing them under the pillow she lifted them to her nose and sniffed them.
The pajamas and their aroma—the unused place setting, the oversized shoe—are links to the deceased. The touch and the smell of her husband’s pajamas were her bridge to the past from the present for the widow I knew. The ritual of holding, folding, sniffing and placing the pajamas under the pillow each night served her as a source of comfort.
Danticat writes, “we all carry within ourselves our own private memorials of loss and an increasing fear of future ones.” Yes, but while the memorials of loss keep the possibility of future loss before us, they are also sources of comfort.
In a primitive and powerful manner, it is the senses that provide solace. Not only prompted by rituals, but also out of nowhere, it seems, wafts an aroma that reminds us of the person we once—an still—loved. The smell may evoke a memory: a walk in the woods together, a smell like that of a car once owned, lilacs in spring. Many who are bereaved find themselves weeping for what appears to be no reason at all. In reality, it may be that there is something in the air that unconsciously reminds the bereaved of the person now missed.
Food and all that is associated with it provokes strong feelings. Cooking aromas in the kitchen or even the thought of particular dishes can remind us of the times we were together, the communion around the table, taking into our bodies the necessary sustenance.
Each time we eat we are reminded that life continues, that there is a cycle in which we participate, that life and death cannot be separated. Our hunger and its need to be satisfied remind us that we are still alive and that our tenure on this earth is limited.
For this reason, many mourning rituals throughout the world involve food. People come to visit the bereaved, bringing food as a gift. Bringing food relieves the bereaved of necessity of shopping and cooking, the most ordinary of activities. They are exempt from this quotidian task. But it is a declaration that the survivors must continue their own lives. Food is a reminder that life continues even in the face of death.
All too often the bereaved think that they have lost hold of sanity because they break into tears without any apparent reason. In reality, they have not lost hold of life. The senses—our bodies—are tying us to those who have gone and are bringing us back to ourselves.
We weep when something enters unexpectedly and unconsciously that causes us to remember. A touch, a smell, a sight provoke memories that throw us back to a past that anchors us in the present.