I grieve for my mum by making soup. Big or small, our death rituals matter

The pandemic has meant many of us are in mourning, but the things we do help us remember

It’s more what soup represents; it’s warm, it’s comforting, it’s schmeckt

By Eleanor Margolis

For the past few weeks, I’ve been making soup almost constantly. Never has a nervous breakdown smelled so savoury. Maybe not a nervous breakdown, exactly. But I always act oddly this time of year.

Or have done, at least, for the past four years, since my mum died on a November afternoon. This year, in a cyclone of chopped vegetables and stock that I’d attributed to it being “soup season”, it occurred to me that this was actually grief soup.

That I was channelling the sadness of another year without my mum into the repetitive actions – chopping, frying, blending – that come with obsessive soup-making.

It’s not that my mum herself made a lot of soup (although her cooking in general will always be one of my happiest memories of her).

It’s more what soup represents; it’s warm, it’s comforting, it’s schmeckt. Schmeckt is the Yiddish word my mum always used to describe something truly radioactive with flavour.

In a soup (if it’s any good) you have the deep brown savouriness of the stock merged with the sweetness of vegetables such as carrots and onions, and concentrated into pure schmeckt. You basically isolate everything delicious about each ingredient, and put it in a bowl. And it helps that I never feel so close to my mum as when I’m chopping an onion.

As year two of the pandemic starts to wrap up, many millions of people are observing death anniversaries. Most are probably not making vats of grief soup, but we all have our rituals that help us remember those we’ve lost in the best possible light.

I know that anyone who saw a loved one in an ICU with Covid will have two conflicting images of that person.

I visited my mum in intensive care when she was dying of cancer, and the sight of her in a hospital bed, full of tubes, will always be at war with my memory of her bustling around a kitchen, making beautiful smells.

Death rituals, be it those entrenched in different religions and cultures, or those we invent ourselves, are designed to help us remember the good over the unspeakably awful. In November, of course, the entire country becomes enraptured by an increasingly divisive death ritual involving poppies and silence.

At the moment though, I’m still distracted by loss on a personal level. As well as the unofficial remembrance act of soup-making, this year I lit a yahrzeit candle for my mum. This is a Jewish death ritual. We aren’t a religious family at all, but I feel like she’d get a kick out of it.

A candle is standard remembrance fare for a reason; it’s somberly calming to stare into a flame as it dances with life, and think about decrying your mum for picking little piles of dead skin off her feet, only to have her reply, “You’ll miss me when I’m dead”.

After four years, she mostly just feels phenomenally far away. But still – I like to think – out there somewhere, watching me perform my stupid little rituals.

Maybe the dead have ways of remembering the living, too. Light years away, perhaps, my mum is cooking grief soup for me.

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