There were lots of things I didn’t help with when my dad died in June of 2017.

I have acute and poignant memories of many things, good and bad, that took place over the days after his death, but the food at his funeral reception is not one of them.

When my mom died suddenly this past August, many things had a surreal deja vu element to them. Twice in my life, I have opened the door of my parents’ home to the warm face of a slightly older gentleman named “Michael from the funeral home.”

This August, he followed that phrase with, “I think we know each other.”

Yep. We have done this before, Michael. Except we haven’t. No one has really ever done death before.

Not that Michael cared, but this time around, I ended up in charge of the food. One benefit of living in a village is there are few food choices.

Grief brain truly has limited executive decision makinglimits are good.

At the advice of exactly everyone, I made an appointment to meet with Susan in the catering department of the local gourmet grocery store. My mother’s friends (the beloved LOLs) instructed me to order the “funeral luncheon for 120 and be sure they add coffee and tea.” I made the call and promised to come by with payment.

It sort of goes without saying I was tired and probably slightly starving, but not at all hungry when I had Susan paged to the front of the store.

“Susan, you have a customer at the front desk . . .”

The page echoed through the ether and for 90 seconds I fell backward into the memory of paging my mother in Marshalls as a kid. I don’t mean the ONE time I paged her. My mother was shopping for six kids and I was a wanderer. Paging her when I got lost wasn’t for emergencies—it was our plan.

Suddenly an older woman was ushering me to a desk between the entrance and exit of the store. Luckily, every single person in the store would pass by as I paid for 120 mini lobster rolls.

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Susan explained that she was actually Nancy. Susan had been called away, but Nancy was very happy to help and what sort of event was I planning for?

The thing about being slightly starving and utterly sleep deprived and having a dead mom is you just don’t have the energy to say it all again.

I tried to explain to Nancy nee Susan, I’d already ordered the “funeral luncheon for 120 with coffee and tea,” but Nancy sat at the computer and tried to explain to me it just wasn’t showing up in the system.

Obviously, I started crying.

Nancy warily explained that in order to have ANY food for the funeral, we really DID have to get the order in today, in fact in an hour, or we’d risk it not happening at all and she was so, so sorry.

OK, Nancy, let’s reorder.

Except that Nancy is really just filling in from the plant department, and there don’t seem to be any “funeral luncheon” options, just platters. Did I know how many platters I wanted?

Um, what Nancy?

Well, there are classic sandwich platters with four turkey, four roast beef, four cheese, and four Vegetarian, OR the salad sandwich platters with six egg, six chicken, six tuna, and six seafood salad. How many would I like?

Normally I have a different version of myself for situations like this. Meghan with double guns, ready to blast everyone and burn the house down for good measure.

I love angry me. She’s a great caretaker when I’m scared and broken down, mostly just by letting me know she has her own thoughts and feelings about what is happening. In my 20s she caused some trouble. These days I rarely leave her without my 45-year-old parental supervision.

I would say she is possibly not a favorite with others.

Nonetheless, she seemed to be off duty. Maybe she was exhausted from the week’s events, or maybe she couldn’t bear to blast poor, elderly, inept Nancy.

I seemed to be left with my helpless, weeping third-grade self who sucked at math.

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I drank a lemonade, wiped my snot, and sat down.

OK, Nancy let’s go.

With the help of my iPhone calculator and a complete disregard for the comfort of other shoppers, I sobbed and flipped through the pages of the catering menu.

Each time I’d make a decision, Nancy would ask, “Are you sure you need that many?”

Nancy, I think you and I both know I am sure of nothing, but this is what is happening.

I called my math wizard husband. I called my mother’s church crew–like a gameshow phone-a-friend, but no joy.

OK. Desserts. Each tray has 24 cookies, 12 brownies, and 12 blondies. What do you want?

What I want, Nancy, is the funeral luncheon for 120 with tea and coffee.

“How about four dessert trays?”

“Are you sure you need that many?”

Nancy, I need this to be over.

We were finally wrapping up. Nancy was sorry this had been so difficult. One thing Nancy never said? “I’m sorry to hear about your mom,” or anything of that iteration. Nancy was stressed and trying so hard, and I hated her.

The tip of my credit card was transferring from my fingers to Nancy’s when I remembered the coffee and tea.

“Do you need carafes, or does the church have them?” I imagined brown cardboard boxes of coffee at the funeral reception and could hear my mom’s disdainful commentary.

“And how many creamers?”

Deep breaths.

“How about 200?”

“They come in boxes of 400.”

Oh, Nancy.

This time I said it out loud, “I need this to be over. Please.”

Nancy has perked up slightly.

“OK, last thing. What about milk?”

“Why in the world would I need milk if I just bought 400 creamers?”

Oh, THERE she was–Angry Meghan seemed to have shown up after all.

“Well, some of these little old ladies really prefer milk with their tea.”

You mean like, “That was a terrible funeral. The worst. They didn’t have any freaking milk for my tea?”

“I see your point”

I know, poor Nancy.

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But I want you to know that nearly everyone at my mother’s funeral heard this story. A hideous experience redeemed by the laughter of people desperately in need of a laugh.

Everyone promised to eat as much as they could and drink multiple cups of coffee with at least five creamers–but not many did.

I went back to the grocery store and brought Nancy flowers (from her plant department) and left them at the same desk where we had both nearly expired.

Along with hydrangeas, I left this note:

“Thank you so much for all of your help on my mother’s funeral luncheon for 120.
P.S.–when you get a chance, please refund me for the 400 creamers. They were never delivered.”

Sadness, anger, love, laughter, and a luncheon.

Previously published on the author’s blog

Meghan Riordan Jarvis

Meghan Riordan Jarvis has been working in the field of grief and loss for 17 years in her psychotherapy private practice specializing in trauma in Washington DC. She has a tall, brilliant, Englishman husband, three above average height and decibel children, and a puppy named Madeline Albright. After losing both her parents within two years of each other, she began the blog Grief Is My Side Hustle.