How To Bake a Grief Cake
because their birthday still comes up every year.
Things you’ll need: oil, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla extract, baking powder, flour, salt, and a random cake recipe (or a box of cake mix and whatever it wants you to add). Whipping cream, cream cheese, strawberries, and a hug.
Your calendar still reminds you of their birthday. Facebook even sends you a notification, as if you had forgotten the date, could forget, don’t feel the date approaching like a wave of unknown magnitude every year.
Maybe it’s the first year that they aren’t there. Maybe it was already the first anniversary, the first Thanksgiving, the first beautiful fall day without them. It comes up at odd times, like the NPR fundraising drive somehow reminds you of that time you were in the car together listening to the radio and the light was just so and you were talking about something that seemed super important even though you don’t remember anything except the way their smile looked in profile, the exact way that their car smelled, the way they held the steering wheel, the way that they danced in their seat.
It’s like all of your memories have a hole running through them, an empty spot. You can’t think of Thai food without thinking about what they would order which reminds you that they aren’t there. When you buy flowers, you pick the ones they’d like because flowers were always more important to them than they are to you. Certain smells open the empty spot wide open.
Then there’s that stupid calendar, bringing up the same dates every year and you don’t even know which ones will hurt the most this time. Sometimes they don’t hurt at all and that makes you a little sad too.
You decide to bake them a birthday cake. Maybe because you always have, maybe because you need to do something, maybe as an offering, maybe you just want to eat cake because you hope it will make you feel better. You don’t even bake cake. It’s not a thing that you do. Maybe you think that the more effort you put into it, the less energy you’ll have left to remember your grief today.
Google a recipe and kind of pick one at random because you don’t know enough about cake to presume that one recipe could be better than the next. Mix sugar with oil, then eggs, then milk and vanilla. Mix together dry ingredients and then slowly add them to the wet ones. You only have one cake tin, so fill that one half-way and then find a small rectangular Pyrex and fill that one too. They go in the oven. Set a timer. Don’t believe the timer when it goes off. Leave it in a little longer until you arbitrarily decide it’s done even though you have no idea. You’re at least sure that it isn’t raw and that’s fine.
Let them cool all the way down. Cut the round one into the same shape/size as the rectangular one and keep all the trimmings to eat with ice cream later.
Using your fancy stand mixer or a hand mixer, whisk about half a cup of cream cheese until it is super smooth and whipped-ish. Don’t add sugar (because you don’t want to and the cake was sweet enough). While still whisking on a medium-ish speed, slowly add about 1 cup of heavy whipping cream because you watched a video and that is what they said to do. Stop occasionally to scrape the sides until all the cream is added. Add a little vanilla or whatever extract you want and whisk vigorously until it forms “stiff peaks”. Stop before it becomes butter. If it’s a little bit lumpy, remind yourself that it’s still pretty good for someone that has no idea what they are doing.
Place one cake on a plate and cover the top with fresh sliced strawberries. Plop a bunch of the whipped cream frosting on top and do your best to spread it around. Spend a lot of time licking your fingers. Once you’ve got it spread “evenly” decide to add more strawberries because that’s what they would have liked. Make some kind of shape with the strawberries like a secret message or an inside joke. Add the second cake, gingerly, on top of the frosting layer. Take a moment to be very impressed with yourself because the frosting isn’t oozing out the sides from the weight and this is looking very cake-like!
Plop and spread most of the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the cake, reserving some to eat later with a spoon or the remaining cake trimmings. Get frosting all over everywhere in the process. Grief is messy too.
Discover that sliced strawberries look a lot like hearts. Make little cuts to make them more heart-like because your heart hurts and you have all this love left inside of you for this person who is no longer there to receive that love and you have been gathering all these conversations inside of you that you want to have with them but never will.
Don’t write happy birthday. Write their name or that you miss them or that you love them. Draw a heart. Decorate with your strawberry hearts. Make it through the day. Have the cake the next day for breakfast too.
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