Danny Heitman: At Random: In wake of grief, try brownies

After my friend Susan’s mother died recently, I brought over a pan of brownies and a couple of casseroles to ease her grief.

A little armful of food seemed like such a small answer to a lost life. But it was the only thing I could think to offer — the only thing, in fact, that my own mother could ever think to offer when sadness fell across a house.

My late mother’s Saturday baking often included a cake for us, along with a cake of condolence for some friend, cousin, customer or church member who had buried someone dear to them. That’s how the smell of vanilla and batter became mixed in my mind not only with pleasure and satisfaction, but the slight pang of mourning.

How did my mother come so routinley under the shadow of such grief? Because of the wide community she cultivated, or so I eventually realized, she was more likley to know someone facing a funeral.

It was my first lesson in a sublime mystery of the human heart —- namely, that the more open you are to love, the more open you are to loss.

But that’s no reason to avoid the ties that bind, as Alice Hoffman reminds readers of “Survival Lessons,” her new book about how to prevail over life’s occasional roadblocks.

Hoffman knows what she’s talking about. Fifteen years ago, the bestselling novelist was diagnosed with breast cancer. A decade and a half later, she’s offering “Survival Lessons” as a small crash course to anyone facing a crisis, whether it be death, divorce, major illness or a lost job.

What Hoffman learned, among other things, is that love and loss often hold hands. “I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other,” she tells readers. “This is what makes us human. This is why our world is so precious.”

Hoffman also learned that small doses of pleasure can help relieve even the deepest anxiety.

“Start by eating chocolate,” Hoffman advises. “In fact, if you can, eat whatever you want. Any time. Any place. Cook your dream dinner: lasagna, stuffed mushrooms, fried rice, devil’s food cake with mocha frosting, blueberry pie.”

I’m sure that Hoffman, like most of us, knows about the health complications of comfort food. We can quickly get fat if we try to bury all of our troubles in pasta and dessert.

But in moderation, as she seems to suggest, there’s a lot to be said for brownies when times get tough.

She likes hers messy. “The top will crack,” she says of her favorite variety. “You’ll want to throw them out. Don’t. They will be everything they should be and more. They are perfect inside, which is even better than merely looking good.”

Maybe, I thought, Hoffman is on to something. Which is why I brought some brownies to Susan, and then made some for myself.