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Joan Didion and Chicken Soup

By Shari Crall

The appropriate response to sickness and death is chicken soup. I learned this from Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and it has helped me escape paralysis in the face of such things. Not being a cook, that has meant sitting in a long line at Chik-Fil-A, but that gives time for contemplation and is a fitting ritual.

I have needed this knowledge this year more than any year of my life. I have taken chicken soup to my friend whose husband died in minutes after a heart attack while he was away and was found by strangers. I have taken chicken soup to my friend whose husband died in minutes after they returned from an unremarkable evening walk. He sat down in his chair and while she went to get the mail, he left this earth. I have taken chicken soup to my best friend’s mom after an anxious last month of care for her husband experiencing steep decline. I have taken chicken soup to the husband of the woman I visit taught for 25 years, forming a deep and abiding friendship, and then delivered her eulogy.

The key about taking the soup, which I learned from Joan, was you just take it. If you ask can you do something, or would they like chicken soup, invariably they will say they can get by. If you know anything about Joan Didion you know she never ate a thing but instead lived on cigarettes. But when the chicken soup showed up after the death of her husband at the dinner table while she was making salad in the kitchen, she said it was just the right response.

So during this last month when it seemed our whole ward got CoVID, including eventually me, I took the soup to the couple who already had enough on their plate. I took it to the ward organist who then asked me to play the piano in Sacrament Meeting, a desperate move denoting the true measure of sickness among us, but fulfilling a lifelong pledge of my mother’s that I would learn to play the piano well enough to play in sacrament meeting because you never knew when it would be needed and finally, 46 years later, due to a worldwide pandemic, it was. I took soup to my ever so healthy, I will make it for you but I don’t ever need anything friend.

Joan Didion, whose gift was her detached observance and who also passed away recently, spoke the truth. Invariably warm thanks were expressed because chicken soup hits the spot. Even if the soup was not the key, even if it went down the disposal because they didn’t like soup or couldn’t eat it right then, it is still a good response. It says I am rushing in, I want to engage, I want to be of comfort, anyway I can and I don’t really know how or what to do so I will do the time honored thing – bring the chicken soup.

What do you do that brings comfort?

About Shari Crall

Shari Crall is a native of the Chicago suburbs. She has lived her adult life in Southern California where she raised four children with her husband Chris. She recently retired from a career in social work. She holds a BA in political science from BYU and an MSW from SDSU. She spent over a decade writing a column for her local newspaper, titled The Crall Space. She has blogged for Segullah for several years and been published in LDS outlets like Exponent II, a BYU Women's Conference collection, and most recently in Living on the Inside of the Edge by author Christian Kimball.

3 thoughts on “Joan Didion and Chicken Soup”

  1. I take a hot breakfast the morning of funerals. Usually food shows up for dinners from others, but to save the family (usually the mother), time the morning of a funeral, and to have a hot breakfast instead of cold cereal, is one of the ways I serve and love.
    I take a baked omelet, heated sliced ham. a yummy “doctored” fruit and yogurt dish, muffins or a sweet bread and either hot chocolate mix or chocolate milk.

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  2. Thank you for this suggestion to do an act of service for people who are often too overwhelmed managing a challenge to really think about what they need.

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