On grief & chocolate

More than a mere comfort or indulgence, chocolate offers me connection with the dead.

All I want to write about these days is grief and chocolate.

About how when my dad was dying seven years ago, I didn’t know what to do, so I baked. Brownies, cookies, chocolate cake, florentines, macarons, profiteroles. I bought him his favourite chocolate bar, 3 Musketeers, whenever I passed through our local Tesco Express, hoping to bring a shadow of that eager childlike grin he used to make when presented with a treat back to his face.

And then all of a sudden he couldn’t keep his food down, and I felt more powerless and restless than ever. There are many memories from that time I’ve tried to forget, but it’s proved impossible over the years, so I may as well look them right in the face and acknowledge them: the time I overheated the chicken soup in the hospice microwave, and cursed myself like I’ve never done before for burning his tongue. He’s dying for goodness sake, the least you could do is test the temperature of the soup before you feed him. The way his eyes looked in different directions in the last few weeks of his life, the way he looked past me as if he couldn’t see me. How looking at him, wracked with pain and waking nightmares, filled me with horror, swiftly followed by self-disgust at the cowardice that made me pace the room and fuss and fidget and basically do anything other than sit still, sit with him quietly through the excruciating labour of his final days.

I never knew saying goodbye would feel so incomplete, so lacking in closure.

In those final awful weeks (or was it days?), a local friend texted asking if there was anything she could do for us. I asked her if she could possibly bring chocolate to the hospice, where we were all gathered, keeping anxious vigil. She brought a box of chocolate cookies and a hug; I’ve rarely felt as well loved by a friend as I did in that moment.

The last thing dad ever asked me for was a chocolate milkshake. He couldn’t eat solid food by that point, and sometimes I wonder if he really wanted it or if he asked for it just to make me feel useful, to give me something to do. Maybe he knew I longed to give him one last taste of something good; that sharing sweet things is one of my favourite ways to show people that I love them.

My love of chocolate isn’t rooted in grief, so I don’t know why I started there; perhaps so that I could work my way back to the comforting, joyful beginnings, then back round again to the more profound appreciation that I have now.

My earliest memory of chocolate involves my beloved big sister bringing me chocolate biscuits when I was supposed to be taking a nap. I remember the whole-body feeling of expectation as I waited for her to return, triumphant, from the kitchen; I remember clutching the bars of my cot, feeling loved and cared for as her little feet thumped up the stairs towards me.

Then there are the chocolate birthday cakes my mother made me, each one such a labour of love, the taste of childhood celebrations. Now I’m a mother myself, I use the same recipe; the act of melting the chocolate and butter in a makeshift bain marie is like a time machine that takes me straight back to my childhood, waiting at my mother’s elbow for the moment that she’d give me a spoon so I could scrape the remnants of melted chocolate from the bowl.

Lately, my chocolate consumption has become rather more ritualised, and I’ve also become a bit of a snob in my tastes. Let me explain how this came about.

It has a lot to do with my sister’s partner, Dean (the man we called “Dean the dream machine”, partly because it rhymed but mostly because he was a walking dream of a man in practically every sense, and the closest thing to a brother I’ve known—which is saying a lot, because for some reason I’ve longed for a brother my whole life), and a little to do with an ex-boyfriend who introduced me to some of the finer things in life, including luxury artisanal chocolates.

Before the ex in question gave me a box of Paul A. Young chocolates (about 13 years ago, now—gosh, that makes me feel old), I’d never eaten chocolates that had an information booklet detailing the exact temperature at which the chocolates should be stored, a list of food they should be kept away from (strong cheese is the one I remember, but there were others), and an eat-within-a-few-days warning. I was so overwhelmed with the confusing luxury of it all that I ate them in one sitting.

Once you’ve tasted preservative and additive-free, high quality, high cocoa content chocolate, it’s hard to go back. Your tastebuds expect better. But it was a little while longer before my palette really started to refine.

Fast forward to autumn 2019, and Dean sent me a bar of Bare Bones Honduras 60% milk chocolate (with taste notes of raisins, fudge, and double cream) by post, which arrived the day my period started and my chocolate cravings were at their peak. It was then that I had my first inkling that he had a special gift for knowing when chocolate might be most needed.

My habit of consuming chocolate regularly in liquid form started some time in the first lockdown, March 2020, when I started buying dark chocolate drops with my weekly food shop that I’d whisk into a pan of milk over a low heat to make a rich, bittersweet drink. Dean knew I didn’t drink tea or coffee, but that I loved hot chocolate; the last time I ever saw him in late October 2020, he gave me an early birthday present of an enamel milk pan, so I could make my favourite drink without scratching up another pan. “You’ll have to make me one when you’ve perfected the technique,” he told me.

A few weeks later, Dean died in a tragic accident. I got the train the day after it happened to be with my sister and mum; my sister hadn’t yet been back to her home, where the pancake mix from the pancakes she’d had with Dean the morning he died still sat on the countertop, and a pile of post, some with her name, some with his, waited on the doormat. We stayed in a nearby guest house rented from a friend, moving about slowly and carefully, talking softly, the way people do when grief is fresh and raw and you feel as though you might somehow miraculously still be able to unravel time and pull the one you’ve lost back into the realm of the living.

Amidst the pile of post, there was a package addressed to Dean from Bare Bones, containing several bars of dark chocolate—the only kind my sister can eat, as she’s dairy intolerant. The pieces of those bars that I ate were consumed with a new reverence, held on my tongue as they melted in a moment of communion with Dean.

A few weeks later, we discovered there was a parcel being held for Dean at the local post office; it was a package of several bags of hot chocolate buttons made by a company in Cornwall called Olfactory Coffee Roasters. My sister said that it was a brand of hot chocolate he had enjoyed years ago when visiting her at art school, and he had been talking about how good they were ever since, trying to track down where to buy them. He must have ordered them for me for Christmas, she said, to go with the enamel hot chocolate pan. We opened the box the day of his funeral, and that evening I whisked up hot chocolates for myself, my sister, Dean’s brothers, and nieces.

My hot chocolate habit is now a daily ritual, and I’ve found I can’t go back to powder now that I’ve developed a habit of melting solid chocolate into milk. Even just the smell of the dark chocolate buttons that Dean gave me makes my body relax, helps me to feel close to him, loved by him, connected somehow with him, beyond the grave.

Perhaps all of this sounds a bit eccentric. But then again, J.K. Rowling had her characters eat chocolate as an antidote to the soul-sucking Dementors, so I know I’m not the only one who draws some kind of physical, and even spiritual strength from it.

After all, isn’t it one of life’s greatest and most beautiful mysteries, that these frail bodies can take such a simple and mundane act as eating, and turn it into an experience that transcends time and space through association, memory, and relationship?