Grief and Baking a Cake

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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26 was a number I always liked as a kid. My sister and I were both born on the 26th.   If I had to pick a number from one-100 I would always pick 26.  If I had to pick a number from one-10 it was just plain old 6.  My mom was born on the 6th.  My dad was born in 1946.  My sister was born in 1986.  If you look for patterns they are everywhere, I suppose.  6 and 26 were my patterns.  They felt somehow comforting when I was a kid.  They felt like numbers that belonged to my family.

Today, June 26th, is the anniversary of my dad’s death.  His deathiversary, if you will.   June 26th.  Yup, so he died on 6/26 . . . the universe just seems cruel sometimes.  It has been a lot of years now and yet every year the month of June brings a sense of dread.  Bad memories . . . Father’s Day in the ICU . . . the 26th . . . walking out of the hospital for good, without him.

The loss is far enough behind me now that it takes more than two hands to count the anniversaries that have passed, but the date never goes away.  It still sucks.  It still brings up the bad memories and the pain.  On the one hand, the pain gets a little easier each year, and on the other hand, more landmarks pass that he will never see, more memories fade, I get closer to having lived more years on this earth without him here than with him here.

So what did I decide to do this year for 6/26, my least favorite day of the year?  I decided to bake a cake.  That’s right.  A cake.

Now, let me sidebar and say that there are so many amazing things you can for the anniversary of a loved one's death.  Eleanor created a really great post of 30 things you can do for the anniversary of your loved one's death here.  But today you just get me baking a cake.

You may remember back around the holidays when I made a commitment to recreate all of my grandmother’s Christmas cookies.   If you don’t remember, you can check it out here.  I will give you the long and short of it:  I thought recreating my grandmother’s Christmas cookies would be a great tribute to her and a way to remember her during the holidays.  I got the recipes.  I bought the ingredients.  I never made the cookies.  Epic fail.  If it is any consolation I did frame the recipes and they do look fabulous.  But no cookies.  None.


Like my grandmother made Christmas cookies and I associate those cookies with her, my dad loved coconut cake.  We had it almost every year for his birthday and over the years we learned one thing for sure: it is hard to get a good coconut cake in this town! Every time I see coconut cake in a restaurant or bakery now I think of my dad, but rarely do I actually order it because I know it just isn’t going to be very good.  For years I have thought about baking a coconut cake myself and for years I have put it off because baking is a lot of work!  Especially from scratch.  Especially when you don't already have a good recipe.  Especially if you don't have a lot of free time.  Especially if you have no kitchen (have I mentioned our kitchen is a total construction site? Don't worry, I'll include a photo of my kitchen so you have no excuses.  Note the fact that I only have 18 inches of counter space in my entire make-shift kitchen ----->).  Especially if you're busy.  But after my Christmas-cookie-fail, I made a commitment that this 6/26, in memory of my dad, I would bake a coconut cake.   From scratch.

Though I avoid it, baking is actually a very zen experience for me.  When I bake I become totally absorbed in what I am doing, concentrating on weighing and measuring and timing.  No matter how much my mind is racing, baking brings me a sense of total focus.  I put on music and think of little else than moving through this systematic process of creating something.  I associate food with so many memories of people, places, and times in my life.  It is comforting and makes me feel connected to those people and places and times.   Between those two things you would think I would be cooking and baking all the time! Not so much.  Let me give you a little background on my baking skills and habits.  Things I do well:  read cookbooks and baking blogs, watch the food network, eat baked goods.  Things I do not do well: go to the grocery store, plan, practice patience, find motivation.  So cooking this cake was a commitment, not an everyday event.

kitchenaid with cake batter
my cake

Last year I was looking for a white cake recipe and I discovered the Sweetapolita blog, which I became somewhat obsessed with.  Rosie bakes the most amazing cakes I have ever seen and she does an incredible job photographing her process.  Her perfect white cake was exactly that –  perfect!  So, with a swap out of coconut milk for whole milk, it was the base for my coconut cake.  Because Rosie on Sweetapolita can do no wrong, I decided to search around for a coconut icing recipe on her blog.  Though she had one, it was a cream cheese coconut icing, which just wasn’t what I was looking for.  So I adapted her swiss meringue buttercream (the best icing ever! Don't be scared off by the whole making meringue part) into a coconut swiss meringue buttercream (with the addition of coconut cream and some powdered coconut).  I used that as the filling, used the plain swiss buttercream for the cake, and then covered the whole cake in unsweetened coconut.  As I started baking I realized something interesting – I never bake just for myself.  I know there are those people out there who bake cookies to keep in their cookie jar or pies to keep out on their counter.  I am just not one of those people; I wish I was. Kind of. Really I wish I lived with one of those people.  But as I started to bake I couldn’t remember baking anything that wasn’t to take to a party, shower, potluck, work function, or some other event.  Listening to my iPod, focusing on baking this cake in memory of my dad, it was so nice to just be making this cake for me.  No worrying about it looking perfect or tasting perfect.  No worrying about other people’s food allergies or preferences.  Just me, a cake, some music, and some memories. The cake came out wonderfully (thanks entirely to Sweetapolita).  It doesn't look great, it isn't level, I wouldn't be happy to take it to a party.  The coconut milk made it a little denser than I hoped for.   But it doesn't matter, because I have this cake sitting on my counter, just for me, just to remember my dad.  It doesn't matter that it doesn't look perfect.

There are so many foods that remind us of people in our lives we have lost - a grandmother's corned beef and cabbage, a father's chili, a mother's apple pie, a friend's chocolate chip cookies, whatever.  It is easy to find excuses not to make these foods - no time, no reason, no good recipe, not a good cook, no kitchen, whatever.   I share this all just to say that baking is a great way to remember those we have lost - the foods they loved, the foods they made, and the foods we shared together.  It can be a great memorial for a birthday, anniversary of a loss, holiday, or any other day.  So if there is something you have been wanting to make, go for it!  Do it for yourself.  No excuses.

For more information about death anniversaries, check out the following articles:

Are there any foods that remind you of your loved one?  Leave a comment to tell us about it. You can also check out our Grief Recipe Stories here.

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21 Comments on "Grief and Baking a Cake"

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  1. Ghazala K  May 21, 2023 at 3:45 pm Reply

    It has been 3 years since the passing of my beloved younger middle sister Naheed.

  2. Maggie  September 19, 2019 at 10:59 am Reply

    My father is facing the end of a sever-year battle with cancer and I found your website to learn more about grief as this time approaches. Recently, Dad sent my sister’s and I all of his recipes, complete with “Daddy-isms” as he calls them with funny and helpful commentary. I plan to make a book of them for my sister’s and I to carry with us through our lives. And even though I’m a decent cook myself and my recipes for the same thing are sometimes a bit more to my taste…I know I’ll pull out his versions and make them in his honor.

  3. Sylvia  September 17, 2019 at 2:20 pm Reply

    I have not yet been able to make bread , nor apple crisp, since my son died a bit more than 4 years ago. He enjoyed the bread and helped peel the apples…..other ways I have moved forward but these still make me cry. I haven’t made cheesecake since my husband died either. That was his birthday sweet choice…it’s been decades now.. .

  4. Jo  July 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story about grief and cake-baking. On my late husband’s first birthday after his death, I gathered up cake making and decorating items, some photos of my late husband, then stopped at the Dollar Tree for “2 for $1.00” birthday cards, and headed to my closest grandchildren’s home to bake a cake for his birthday. They were surprised to see me; however, they embraced the ritual. We made the messiest and ugliest cake ever (in honor of Grampa), sang Happy Birthday, wrote and drew in the cards, and celebrated with some stories about him. It was awesome for all of us. I’ve continued that tradition with the ugly cake for his birthday…this year in October, it will be the fourth cake we make.
    I find that these small rituals or small celebrations of those I’ve loved and lost to death bring me comfort.

  5. BK  June 27, 2017 at 10:36 am Reply

    It seems in the almost year since my friend died that it just takes too much effort to plan, shop, cook. But last week I made a meal just like he would have (lamb “lollipops” and butternut squash ravioli) just for me, and enjoyed it in his memory with a glass of wine. One of the 365 ways to honor and remember him in the first year after his death that I’m working toward (#354).

  6. Anastasiya  June 22, 2017 at 4:58 am Reply

    I’m so glad I read your blog. I have been wanting to bake something for a long while and haven’t had the energy or time with a 2 year running around. My Dad passed away a little over a year ago and his birthday is on 6/25 so I’ve decided I will bake a cake in his memory. A dark chocolate espresso cake because we shared a love for coffee. Thank you for the inspiration.

  7. Anna Eaton  June 26, 2016 at 3:48 pm Reply

    Last year I was widowed as many years as I was married, 21 years. It made my grief resurface. I validated my feelings. I then felt grateful for having 21 years and having memories in my heart always. My husband and I always enjoyed and celebrated seasonal foods. I continue.
    The same year I had lived without my Mother the same amount of years I had her, 31 years. I celebrate her with chicken and dumplins and chocolate cream pie. Grateful to have had her 31 years and always in my heart.

    • Litsa  June 27, 2016 at 10:01 am Reply

      Anna, it is so funny you commented on this, as I had just been thinking that I am approaching that same timeframe with my dad’s death. One of the things I think people underestimate is the way grief evolves as we move through stages of life. Random events or dates come and bring up new aspects of our loss, or bring up old feelings that we thought were long gone.

  8. Lois Johnson  June 26, 2016 at 12:35 pm Reply

    My dad died on this date, June 26, 1990. 26 years ago. I love and miss him so much. Next Saturday, July 2, is the second anniversary of my husband’s death, July 2, 2014. They both died in their 50’s. I love and miss him beyond, too.

    • Litsa  June 27, 2016 at 9:58 am Reply

      Ah Lois, thinking of you – I am sure it is hard to have these two anniversaries so close together. You will be in my thoughts!

  9. Kelli  June 26, 2016 at 11:42 am Reply

    My mom was type 2 diabetic so there were many things she loved that she couldn’t enjoy. One of them was chocolate cake. When she got ovarian cancer, it actually destroyed her diabetes (along with everything else) but her oncologist said she could eat anything she wanted at this point. She was dying. We knew this. So this was the time to eat chocolate cake. And although one round of chemo did a number on her taste buds, she had a piece of chocolate cake on her last birthday (she was born on 6/6/36 Litsa). She was also a huge fan of plain old Lays potato chips. She could never have them in the house because she said she swore they called her name in the middle of the night. So every year on her birthday I make a chocolate cake and buy a bag of Lays potato chips. It’s become a tradition now. Mom would have turned 80 this year. Her last birthday was 73. I think these kind of memories somehow keep a little part of our loved ones alive. Good for you for making that cake! :). Holding space for you today. <3

    • Litsa  June 27, 2016 at 9:54 am Reply

      Ah, love this Kelli – thank you so much for sharing. How bittersweet that your mom was finally able to enjoy the food she loved again. I totally agree these are the little ways we keep our loved ones with us and continue our connection to them. And lucky for us it can be through cake and potato chips in this case!

  10. Carolyn  March 14, 2016 at 7:59 pm Reply

    Aww, today I too baked a cake! For my girl friend Stephanie Ann, who passed away a year ago to date. :”( I also made supper in her honor. While 13 is one of my fave #’s, 6/26 is one too, My Ma’s b-day! Keep baking, the tears & laughs bake right in & make it all worthwhile! ♥

  11. Mary  January 23, 2016 at 7:19 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I’m glad to know that a) I’m not the only person who finds baking relaxing, and b) I also don’t bake for myself. I baked for my husband and for extended family. Since becoming a widow, it’s been too hard.
    My husband was the cook and I was the baker. He loved to cook. We loved being in the kitchen together. But I lost my joy of the kitchen when I lost him. I try sometimes.
    I’m having work done in the kitchen, so maybe new kitchen, new motivation?

  12. Linda D.  April 9, 2015 at 6:27 am Reply

    Dates on the calendar … it’s getting closer to the first anniversary of Mom’s death. Siblings hadn’t included me & my family for years. Mom went into the hospital last June in my sister’s birthday and passed away at 1am the next morning, which was my brother’s birthday. These first dates/holidays without Mom have been the hardest. And there’s no comfort from or with my siblings. They wouldn’t meet with me after to write thank you notes or even to go to the bank. Nothing at Christmas or Easter. Only my brother’s ex (not his current wife or my sister) texting me when he was sick and then telling me not to go see him. Nothing but hurt from them. I sent texts about a final check which the bank sent last week. They responded to that but still haven’t cashed or let me know it’s received or asking where it is. Mom raised us better than that.

  13. Jadie  December 5, 2013 at 8:18 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing your stories. I lost my dad a little over a month ago, and being a student away quite far from home has had me searching the internet for voices from others who have had similar experiences. This is also my first holiday season away from my family, and although I’m surrounded by very loving friends, it’s been difficult trying to make the holidays meaningful because everything is so different. Creativity definitely helps. This is his favourite dish, one that I will be making for new mouths to enjoy this year!

  14. Marci  December 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm Reply

    This reminds me of my Dad, though his favorite was Lemon Meringue. Then it also reminds me of my Mom who would make it for him as a gesture of love.
    Thanks, like you its been many years since I lost my Dad, but Mom was just a few ago. I miss them almost daily. Especially at this time of year. It was Dec 15 that my Dad past. And Mom is Jan 2nd, then my Husband was the 17th. My step Dad was Jan 15, which oddly enough is my real Dads birthday.
    So Dec and January are not my favorite months.
    But it is nice to bask in the lovely memories of past happy days, even some not so happy.
    I think it might be a good thing to make a lemon meringue pie for the upcoming holidays. I will be spending it with my brothers and it will hopefully bring forth some good memory’s for them too.

  15. Evie Williams  June 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm Reply

    As Litsa’s mom I read this post with a mixture of many emotions. This is the 14th anniversary of Litsa’s Dad’s passing on June 26, 1999 and each year I re-live to some degree the three weeks we “lived” in the ICU from June 6 to 26. (Yes, here’s another “6”… the day he entered the hospital.) There were so many emotional ups and downs during that time which ended with his passing as Litsa, her sister Anne Marie and I lovingly surrounded him as the ICU staff so kindly left us alone with curtains closed and all alarms turned off. We will remember always the wonderful nurses and other staff who supported us in so many ways during those weeks.
    Over the years I have found great comfort in sharing our story and in learning the stories of others who have experienced the loss of their loved ones. It has helped so much to learn that we are not alone in our responses to loss and to realize that truly time does help us heal and that finding ways to remember our loved ones in special ways is very comforting. So among the emotions I felt in reading Litsa’s
    posts is one of pride (after all I am a Mom! ) that she and Eleanor have created this website to try to help others share their stories and find comfort, support, and resources. I have been deeply touched by Eleanor’s posts about her Mom’s passing and I am so glad that she and Litsa have found this way to provide a forum for others to share their stories so we can help each other heal.

    • Eleanor  June 28, 2013 at 11:01 am Reply

      Thank you so much for your comment! It wasn’t until working on this website that I myself understood the comfort and therapeutic value of sharing my story, for others yes but mostly for me! When we started I know I was personally concerned about how those who share our stories, our friends and family, would respond so your comment means even more because of that. Thank you so much for your support!

  16. Anna Maria Keller  June 26, 2013 at 10:55 am Reply

    My mom loved Planter’s peanut brittle, Whitman’s chocolates and they make me think of her when I see them. My dad was German so as a tribute to him I pick German Chocolate cake as my cake of choice. I can totally relate to your blog post today! 7/20 is my dad’s deathiversary, and it has been many years since he passed away. 8/30 is my mom’s. Still, I think of how old they’d have been if they were alive today, and make a mental note of it, pondering what life would’ve been like …alas, it is just another form or task of grieving if you ask me. No different than visiting their grave to set flowers and remember and think of them, talk to them, pray for them. I even made a virtual grave for them on! Some don’t want to dwell on the dead, because life is for the living! But, in living, we need to take time of remembrance too.

    • Litsa  June 27, 2013 at 8:52 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing Anna Maria! I absolutely agree that some people don’t want to dwell, but remembrance for me can be such a great comfort. We are all different in our grief, but these little things make all the difference for me. I am sure it is tough having those anniversaries just about one month from one another. I hope you find some nice ways to remember them as the anniversaries approach – maybe that includes peanut brittle, Whitman’s chocolates, and German chocolate cake!

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