Grocery Stores and Grief

Grocery stores seem such prosaic places, with isles full of treats and temptations, and music that is supposed to put shoppers in the glad mood of buying.

And yet, for those grieving the loss of a life mate, grocery stores can be a source of incredible pain. It took one woman from my grief group more than a year before she could return to the store where she and her husband always shopped. For another woman, the grocery store was a reminder of how carefully she had to shop for her diabetic husband, and it took her months before she could shop without weeping.

Whatever our situation, grocery stores are a part of our lives. When there is an upcoming celebration, even if only movie night at home or a game day on television, we go to the grocery store for treats. When we have company coming, we go to the grocery store to stock up on special ingredients. When holidays come around, we go to the grocery store for all the family favorites. When it’s hot, we go to the grocery store for meals that are simple to fix. When it’s cold, we go to the grocery store for hot chocolate and soup and other warming foods.

When it isn’t a special occasion? We still frequently go to the grocery store to stock up on food and other necessities. Often a couple shops together. Even if a person goes alone, their mate is there too, if only in spirit, as the shopper choose foods their mate likes or might like.

Although they seem an almost constant presence in our lives, grocery store shopping trips are so common and matter-of-fact that we never of think of them in any context but what to eat.

But when your mate dies, suddenly a grocery store becomes a minefield. You automatically start putting his or her favorite foods in the basket, only to dissolve into tears when you see what you have done and realize . . . again . . . that he or she is gone.

I’d become used to going to the grocery store by myself during Jeff’s final weeks, and I’d become used to fighting off tears. We’d always shopped together, so during those weeks, the clerks, of course, inquired about him, and all I could do was shake my head and try not to cry as I said he wasn’t doing well. And when he was gone, the tears were my only response. It took me many months before I could actually say, “Jeff died”. Or “Jeff is dead.” The words simply would not form.

After a couple of months, I went to a different state to take care of my father. The grocery stores there were different enough that they had no emotional connotations for me. Then the grocery store I most shopped at for my dad went out of business, and I had to go to stores further away for the products he liked. I ended up in a store that strongly reminded me the one where Jeff and I shopped, so I left in tears.

I had to go the that store occasionally, so I got used to it and didn’t think much of it until about three years after Jeff died when I decided to buy a particular salad dressing I used to like that was only sold at that store. After I picked up the salad dressing bottle, I looked for some other flavors in that same store brand, wondering if I should try something new, and I saw a dressing Jeff liked. I automatically reached to get it for him, and when I realized what I was doing, suddenly, right there, in the salad dressing aisle, I started to weep.

Grocery store melt-downs are common among the bereaved, and yet very little is said about it. But then, very little is said about any of the everyday horrors that beset those who’ve suffered a loss.

Which, of course, is why I write about such prosaic things as shopping at a grocery store.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

5 Responses to “Grocery Stores and Grief”

  1. Carol J. Garvin Says:

    An enlightening post, Pat! It’s funny…in all the interactions my hubby and I have had with people who have lost loved ones, no one has ever mentioned that grocery shopping has been difficult for them. The closest I can recall are those who have said they find it difficult to find and cook smaller quantities. Some of our larger grocery stores now have sections devoted to ‘single portion’ foods — packaged meats mostly — but cooking too much and having leftovers seems to be an unavoidable reality. I can imagine shopping on ‘autopilot’ would create the kind of situations you mention. You’d get caught off guard selecting something you normally would have bought in the past. Grief can be triggered by so many things.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s interesting that no one mentioned grocery shopping. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing, if the experience got caught in with all the other horror of grief, or if they thought they were the only one. But then, we all have different triggers.

  2. Joe Says:

    We used to shop at a particular Sunday farmer’s market here in the on-season, every single week, so it was a ritual. The first day it opened, in the spring that he died, I skipped opening day for any and all the reasons you describe. When I did try to go the following Sunday or maybe some weeks later, all I could do was stand at the entrance of the empty lot that it occupies for that week. I just couldn’t go in. I had to walk back to my car and just bawl and hope nobody noticed. It’s much easier nowadays, although I don’t linger unless it’s a beautiful morning, but the intensity that first spring really took me by surprise.

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