In the Kitchen

Author: Patty Reis

Our family grief plays out in the kitchen.

We discovered early in our grief that when I attempted tasks in the kitchen they often resulted in something burning. I would start a meal, fire up the stove and soon discover, from the other side of the house, that I had forgotten about the culinary effort started only minutes before. Many a pot full of charred, best-intention delicacies were left outside the back door. I hoped that Tom wouldn't notice as I tried again to prepare the night's meal.

Parents in the Kitchen

After a few months, I started wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn't pull myself together in the kitchen. I ran my kitchen successfully for 30 years. I fed the family and even threw a few successful dinner parties along the way. Yet, I continued to wander away from the kitchen to another room during meal prep or became engrossed in another project when I needed to finish the roast. Shamefully, this led to another burned meal.

Tom likes to eat food that isn't burned, so he soon took over in the kitchen since my efforts weren't producing many edible meals. He's a great cook, and I also like to eat, so I didn't mind.

As Tom began to take over in the kitchen, his engineer mind needed to organize the pantry a little differently. And then a little more and then a little bit more. Until one day, I didn't even recognize my own pantry.

Now, I have to ask where he keeps the so and so. He does all the shopping each Saturday morning using his five pads of paper on the counter: one for each store he plans to visit. He knows which store has the best price and selection for each item. Occasionally, I feel guilty that he's doing all the work, and I offer to pick up grocery items during the week. He declines the offer.

He lets me help in the kitchen now but often explains why we're using this product instead of that, why we put the margarine here instead of there and which cutting board we're using for what. He repeats explanations every couple of days, reminding me of the new policies involved in washing wine glasses, rotating stock in the pantry and where this item now lives in the fridge and why.

This sounds like something that would drive a woman mad in her own kitchen. Thankfully, my sweet therapist helped me understand what is happening in our kitchen. You see, the kitchen is the heart of the home. It is where many of my memories live of daily life with David and Karen. It is the snapshot location where my mental images of them exist. It is a constant reminder that my heart has been torn apart.

No wonder I chose to flee my own kitchen. My heart is trying to drag me away from the pot simmering on the stove. It wants to distract me with an easier memory somewhere else in the house. Meanwhile, my pot runs dry and begins to burn. The acrid-smelling results of my inattention call me back to the kitchen. I'm forced to face this place of my grief. It cannot be avoided.

This ritual plays out a lot in my house. Sometimes, my anger and frustration find an outlet as I hurl the smoking pan across the backyard, just as I tossed it the day before. Tom comes home from work with no dinner on the table and (gently) takes over in the kitchen. For him, the kitchen and his new systems represent control. He had no control over David and Karen's murder, but in helping me he is able to regain his footing in a home that is forever changed.

Our grief created a monster in our kitchen. Someday, we will hopefully find ourselves cooking together and remembering only the happy times spent in that space. For now, we perfect this flip-flopped household task of feeding ourselves. And, the bonus is that we don't starve. 

By Patty Reis, Surviving mother of Navy Lt. j.g. David Andrew Reis and Karen Elizabeth Reis