Panic in the produce aisle: dealing with loss at the holidays

I think it was mostly about the way the collar of her denim shirt was flipped up all wonky on one side.

I couldn’t stop staring at the woman in the Whole Foods. I watched her shuffle along, pushing one of those tiny carts with just a few lemons and a box of salad in it.

Her hair was thin and silvery and it flipped in at her jawline in a way that thin hair doesn’t do naturally. She must use those pink plastic foamy rollers. I would find those little rollers randomly strewn around my house after my grandmother would visit – they’d be sitting on the side table, stacked up on the Kleenex box, lost under the guest bed.

This woman reminded me so much of my Gramma that it took my breath away.


I have a panic disorder, so when something startles me – like thinking I see my grandmother, who died in ten months ago, contemplating avocados – I tend to hyperventilate. My husband was putting red peppers in a bag when I grabbed his arm and managed to say something about stepping outside.

“Are you okay? What happened?”

“Fine. I’m. Outside.”

I don’t tend to get my words right when I have anxiety.

I almost slammed into the sliding door as I stumbled outside. The December air felt good on my flushed face. I hid behind a pile of locally made Christmas wreathes.

Tears poured from under my sunglasses as I continued to gasp like a fish. I’ve had these attacks since I was eleven years old, so I know the drill. I started with my breathing exercises. I counted my inhale for four counts. Hold for two. Out for four. I propped myself up against a pile of scented pinecones and felt the pleasant burn of the cinnamon in my nostrils. My breathing started to normalize, but my hands were still numb. I moved on to my grounding exercises. I counted my fingers. Pressing each one to the opposite palm. One. Two. Three…

My Gramma loved Christmas, so this holiday season – my first one without her – is feeling thorny for me. Over the past few years, she has given me many of her favorite Christmas things. The little nativity set she and my Poppa got in Europe back in the 1960s. The hand-made gold spray-pained angel that now sits on my bookshelf year round. Various tree ornaments with sentimental meaning to her – the details of which I’ve now forgotten and they are precious just because they were hers. As I unwrap each one from the plastic storage box, I’m hit with memories that are both sweet and feel like an ice pick to the chest.

But it was the unexpected sight of a flipped up collar that had me undone. I was always flipping the collar of Gramma’s denim shirt down. I don’t know how many denim shirts she had, or why the collars were so troublesome, but it seemed to be my eternal karmic job. If I wasn’t flipping her collar, I was twisting her necklace around so the clasp was at the back. And she’d do the same for me. She would attempt to smooth down my hair – mermaid hair – she called it. We had a lot of similarities, but my thick, wild curls are one of the few traits I clearly didn’t get from her. I will never be in need of those pink plastic curlers.

In the most simple of ways, we took care of each other.

I walked back into the store and found my husband, who gently rubbed my back. Knowing I needed a distraction, he asked me if we needed bananas.

I didn’t accost the woman and fix her collar. I didn’t sob into her denim shirt and tell her that she reminded me of someone I still can’t believe isn’t here. I didn’t tell her that the holidays are nice and all but sometimes they are really really hard. Instead, I let her finish her shopping.

And because the Universe finds things like this to be hysterically funny, we ended up in the check out line right next to the denim shirt woman. And I saw her trying to snap closed that familiar elderly lady wallet – stuffed full of receipts and coupons and newspaper clippings.

In the middle of my sadness I found a chewy center of joy – memories of the tiny acts of love that live on forever. What a wonderful thing, to know that kind of love exists – that someone has smoothed our frazzled hair, fixed our collar, rubbed our back in the produce section. They tried, in some simple way, to make something better for us. Those seemingly tiny gestures live on and reaffirm love at every moment. And my pain dissolved, as it always does, in the face of gratitude.

What a stunning act of love it is, to say:

“C’mere. Let me fix that for you.”


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29 Replies to “Panic in the produce aisle: dealing with loss at the holidays”

  1. Fantastic. Love is the most powerful force on the planet, capable of awakening so many emotions and memories at the most unexpected times. Keep writing Lisa; you inspire and encourage through your words. I was moved to tears today through your words as I had similar flashbacks of my “Pawpaw”, who always made me feel so special and loved. He was a WWII vet, one of those “greatest generation” types who never thought of himself first. He taught me how to live a life of integrity, mostly without ever saying a word.

    Have a wonderful weekend,

  2. It was literally on Christmas Day that we had to rush my mother to the hospital for the last time. It was her favorite holiday and she went all out for it but now during the holidays I get ‘reminders’ and have to quickly regroup for inner-balance. Good piece. I hope you have a great holiday season, Lisa.

  3. Heavens above, this is gorgeous. Thank you for the reminder that even at this time of year, ESPECIALLY at this time of year, life is full of everything and we’re walking through it all together. You inspire me, Lisa. ❤

  4. It is fascinating to me to read what restimulates us back to the memories we hold in our hearts. Grief is like a wave and combined with the resurgence of memories, I can see it taking me straight to a place of panic. Those waves surge during times when we remember the joy of the past. I felt honored to read this very personal story, Lisa, and am grateful you shared it with us. The gift of this beautiful relationship with your grandmother is the depth of love you shared even in the simplest of gestures. I am sorry for your loss and send you a red ribbon of love to wrap around your heart as you spend this first Christmas without her. xox

  5. Though I don’t suffer from anxiety per se, I do suffer from the affects of deep-seated emotion that can grab me without a moment’s notice, and leave me lost in thought for the rest of the day. My gram has been gone for a number of years now. She, too, was an extraordinarily important person to me, and strikes me as a similar spirit to your Gramma. Regarding that deep-seated emotion I mentioned earlier; perhaps there is one instance when anxiety does rear it’s uncontrolled head. I cannot – CANNOT – attend a Catholic Mass at a traditional Catholic Church, particularly at Christmastime. That scenario is actually associated with my grandfather, who knew all the words to almost every traditional hymn. It’s that I hear him singing them beside me, and I cannot keep from weeping to the point I must excuse myself. The worst part is that I know all the words too and I want nothing more than to stay and sing loudly the joyful emotion they incite in my soul; but crying in the middle of church makes people uncomfortable. Go figure.
    Incidentally, thanks for figuratively smoothing my frazzled hair, fixing my collar, and rubbing my back in the produce section with your writing. You succeed in many simple ways, to make things better for people as you share. Cheers 🙂

    1. Those associations are so strong, aren’t they? And thank you so much for those kind words about my writing. That warmed my heart.

  6. I also suffer from anxiety & panic (currently affecting my new job) and three years ago an uncle passed away on Christmas Day. Thank you for sharing this piece of you with all of us. It helps to know that you are not alone.

  7. Little gestures we take for granted can come to mean so much later when we reflect back on them. Your post had me thinking back to moments of anxiety I’ve experienced in the past, where a simple hand on the back, or someone stopping to adjust my tie, meant more to me than they realized. A simple gesture, but the consideration shown at that moment helped me get through the experience. Happy Holidays, Lisa.

  8. I had a similar experience after my Dad died. I was in Kroger and came around into the Frozen Foods aisle and saw someone who looked just like my dad. In an electronic cart, trying to reach something high with the same frame, lopsided lean and fishing cap. I broke down into tears. Also got myself together and ended up in the next aisle over at check out. I felt so close to my dad at that moment. I will never forget it. Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. I understand. Oh, boy, do I understand. I lost my father 12/28/99 and my only brother 12/21/12 so this time of year is chock full of panicky moments for me. Fortunately, like you, I have a wonderfully supportive husband who helps so much during those difficult times.

  10. My grandma had a Christmas tree ornament that tweeted like a bird at random intervals. As kids, we thought a bird had gotten into the house and landed in the tree. I thought of that today and shared this sweet memory with my husband, who never got to meet Grandma. I hope that I’ve created memories that will make my kids think back and smile too.

  11. Beautiful memory of your grandma. I lost my dad’s mother twenty years ago, and sometimes I still have to remind myself that she’s not here anymore. The smells get me the most – an open fireplace, that smell takes me right back to Grandma & Grandpa’s house, to nuts and oranges in Christmas socks that I thought were lame back then, to meals around that massive dining room table. The only change is, now it puts a smile on my face. A wistful smile, but a smile just the same.

  12. I read this with my husband, as he follows you (I do now too!) and cried. I lost my dad Oct 31, 2014. The first Christmas without him was hell. We all banded together for my Mom, but it was still hard. I’m finding this year to be difficult as well. I don’t get panic attacks but I do get quite a few crying attacks. I broke down and sobbed the other day, and my in-laws dog, which is staying with us right now, came over and laid his head in my lap knowing I was sad.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Losing someone isn’t easy, especially when they are close to you, like your Gramma. One thing I did learn from Mom this year was that it doesn’t get any easier or better; it’s just different. Only you know how the grieving process will effect you, and how long it’ll last. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

  13. hi lisa,

    really can relate to this lovely post. i wasnt lucky enough to grow up with grandparents however, i have lost my father 23 years ago and little things just like you remind me of him. i enjoy your posts a lot and i really did this one.

    wishing you a merry christmas…apryl


    1. Your grandma – my grandpa. I was 14 when I lost him. Most important relation in the past 41 years. I keep his cloak with the fur collar – the scent now faded ( after 51 years )<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<9

  14. Not sure how I happened to stumble across your blog tonight, but I’m glad I did. As someone who also changed careers and goals, moved, and experiences this kind of panic situation quite often, your posts really speak to me. Thanks for sharing your life with the internet!

  15. Your writing reminds me of the determined sailboat. It seeks to take occupants on a journey and along the way manages to traverse through the side currents, wakes, and last-minute changes in the winds’ direction…maybe still not exactly sure of its destination, but sailing true the whole while.

    My deepest sympathies on the loss of your Gramma.

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