Questions at the Grocery Store

Bart Sumner's daughter and sonIn the days that immediately followed my 10-year-old son’s death, perhaps there was nowhere more terrifying than the grocery store – the place I had spent countless shopping excursions begging my son and his little sister to stop running.

Begging them to be polite and think of the other people in the store who were trying to shop and not to consider the store a playground. My son always got it and tried to rein his sister in, but she’d needle him a little, and before the second hand had gone full circle, they’d both be doing what I asked them not to.

He knew I’d be annoyed, and it always made him feel bad, but they had a special bond these two. He was the protector, he knew what would make my wife and I mad and what wouldn’t, and most of the time he knew where the line was they shouldn’t cross.

I noticed in the days after his death, his sister had to learn where “the line” was. It wasn’t where it used to be, and it was not where it would be in a month, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years. But those battles of wills and rules were the good memories of shopping.

The truth was they were great kids, usually helpful, always full of life, who, even if they didn’t always follow them, knew the rules. We had taught them that.

No, the terror of the supermarket wasn’t the memories so much; it was all those other people. The ones shopping who would make eye contact.

Did they know? Did they know that the one of the most special people in the world to me had been taken away? Did they know I was one fleeting memory away from flowing tears and crippling grief? Were they trying to put the face with the newspaper article they read, or were they one of the thousands at his vigil? Did their kid play football too, or had, or wanted to? Had they seen us around school? Church? The theater? Baseball? Softball? Work? Had they lost a child? A spouse? Parent? Sibling? Dog? Hamster?

And when that tiny wave of recognition clicks on their face, what then? Were they going to say something? Oh God, I hoped they wouldn’t say something, but if they had to, please make it short and sweet.

Or maybe worse yet, they didn’t know. How dare them? How dare they stand there and not throw their arms out and wrap me up? No matter how much it made my skin crawl to hug someone again at that exact moment, how dare they not know, and not try? Didn’t you read the newspaper? Watch the TV news?

The greatest little boy that ever walked the face of this planet has died. My little boy. How dare they not know that!?!

And that was just the other customers. The employees all knew my son. He always said “Hi.” He was one of those polite kids who came to the bakery, asked for a cookie, and said thank you when he got one. When I saw the lady in the bakery and she asked how I was I couldn’t tell if she knew or not. I wanted to tell her. But I figured I was finally past the “Let me tell you what happened and make you feel bad because I really feel like dying and I can think of nothing I want more right now than to make you feel like dying too” stage.

I just nodded and replied with “Hanging in there.” She nodded. But, behind me I knew, only 20 feet from where I stood, was the sweet lady who worked in the pre-packaged meat and cheese aisle. She rotated the stock and gabbed with anyone who wanted to talk, and basically made shopping in that store a friendly experience.

Over the years she had become a friend. She was very proud of her children. And she loved my kids. I had walked in the week before, knowing that she may not have heard. There in front of shiny packages of Oscar Meyer Bologna, and Ball Park Franks, she greeted me with her usual smile.

I started to tear-up, realizing she hadn’t heard. She sat down on the edge of the deli case and wept. Then she took my hand and we went outside and both wept. Again I was reminded that it wasn’t just us that had lost my son. She came to the memorial. But every time I went back into that store, there she was stocking meats and cheeses. I’d pass, exchange a meaningful hand grasp, and move forward. There was nothing else to do.

As I’d continue, every face presented the same questions.

I started using a list, I had to, otherwise I would endlessly wander the aisles, looking at everything I had ever bought, thinking of my son. “Tuna,” he used to reach down and hand me the cans. Hot Pockets, he loved them for breakfast with his preference in taste leaning towards the sausage, not bacon.

I’d see something he loved which we didn’t usually buy, and into the cart it would go, I had to have one for him. Before I know it I had a cart full of Cheetos, Garlic bread and Pringles.

So I’d get in line. Which checker was on duty? Oh no, not the manager. He had purchased the winning football raffle ticket from my son last year. He had played on the same football field 30 years ago when he was growing up that my boy died on. He loved my boy. I couldn’t face him again. He’d understand.

I would also avoid the checker with the weathered face and gentle eyes. She always asked about the kids and I didn’t want to go through it again. I’m mean really, what was the appropriate thing to say to “Where are the kids today?” “Oh thanks for asking, my girl is in school, and my son is in an urn on top of the piano. How are you?”

I’d find a cashier on the end I didn’t know. Longest lines, but who cared.

I’d punch in my member number (the boy loved doing that for me). I’d open my wallet and absentmindedly pull out the credit card with the picture of the kids at the beach. My son was buried up to his neck in the sand, and his sister was grinning ear to ear, holding the shovel and pail. A great picture taken when we were camping that year. Inevitably the checker would notice.

Eventually, that credit card would start to bring a smile to my face, helping me remember the good times. But at first it was the last reminder on the way out of the store … my boy was dead, my life had changed forever, and at least for the near future, the supermarket sucked.

Thanks to guest author Bart Sumner for sharing his story. Bart’s daughter has attended two Comfort Zone Camps and says they “gave her some great support to see her through the nightmare of losing her brother.”


  1. Faisal Rehman said on July 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm ... #

    God, your article is so true. .it’s the exact way I feel. I had lost my uncle cum father last year and it is the same feeling that I go through whenever I visit places that we had gone together. .Almost everyone knew us and now all of those places just suck..The whole world just sucks.. Only if I knew that God would take him away so early, I would have spent more quality time with him. The world is now so much different after he left. I dont know how people overcome grief and move far I am a complete failure and just can’t accept the loss… I really wish that I hadn’t experience the grief of loosing a loved one.. 🙁 Its just unbearable..and not acceptable at all..

  2. kym said on July 2, 2013 at 4:19 pm ... #

    I lost my son 3 1/2 years ago -on his 19th birthday,09/01/2010- and I was his carer as well as his mother, he was the sunshine in my life part of me died with him, I can never fill the huge gap in my life. grief is a very individual journey and no-one can tell you what will be right or wrong, do what you must to keep going minute to minute. I wish you many happy memories.

  3. Lori Lee said on July 2, 2013 at 4:44 pm ... #

    Bart, thank you for writing this. Beautiful and heart-wrenching all at once.

  4. Laura said on July 2, 2013 at 5:54 pm ... #

    Very well written. It has been 2 and a half years since our son passed away and just yesterday I felt compelled to buy a package of cookies that made me think of him. Every time I walk in the sanctuary at church I see where he would park his wheelchair until he got where he couldn’t go any more it feels like I am being stabbed in the heart. We are actually about to change churches and get a fresh start. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.

  5. Deena said on July 2, 2013 at 9:00 pm ... #

    Bart, this piece is beautiful. Thank you for opening up and sharing it. I can never see a picture of David without remembering you as a little boy. Deena

  6. Lynn said on July 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm ... #

    What a touch story. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Anna said on July 9, 2013 at 1:35 am ... #

    My 1st son died when he was 1 hr old, almost 27 yrs ago. Even though I already had 2 children, it felt as if life had come to an end. It was just wrong that everyone else should keep going as if nothing had happened. Time has eased the pain, but there will always be a hole in my heart. Prayers for you and your family

  8. Frank LeRose said on July 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm ... #

    Bart you are a very brave, and wonderful person and I thank you for sharing this with me and the world. I am heart broken for your loss, and moved beyond words by your soul.

    God Bless You,


  9. Megs said on July 20, 2013 at 2:50 pm ... #

    I love that you shared your story.

    That others can read it and know they are not alone with those battles.
    I hope that as I was encouraged in reading it you have been freed in a way by writing it.

    Thank you

  10. Amber said on August 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm ... #

    this was an incredibly written story. you are an amazing dad and your daughter is lucky to have you two to help her through this as well!

  11. Patti said on August 8, 2013 at 6:14 pm ... #

    Almost 40 years ago my mother died. I have the same memories. I couldn’t go into Lawsons without remember how she loved butter pecan ice cream and chip chop ham. It’s the hundreds of little things that unexpectably come upon you. Sometimes they make you sad and sometimes they make you smile. I’m so sorry you lost your son.

  12. Lisette Johnson said on August 8, 2013 at 7:08 pm ... #

    It is the little, every day experiences that make up our lives together. Thank you for sharing how confusing it is that something so very ordinary can bring such intense emotion.

  13. Dru said on August 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm ... #

    Bart, thank you so much for writing this piece. It is beautiful and so truthful.

    I recently lost my daughter and reading your piece made me feel less alone. Thank you!

  14. Marta said on August 17, 2013 at 9:58 am ... #

    The grocery store! In my small community, so much greeting and passing of news goes on that it’s hard to get out sometimes. My husband never understood how I could be gone for an hour and a half when picking up eggs and juice, but as a teacher at the nearby school, I often have impromptu parent/teacher conferences in the cereal aisle. Dealing with condolences from my neighbors, students and parents of my students after my husband’s untimely death makes me so uncomfortable I sometimes have to buy groceries in another town. This makes me feel guilty because they are only trying to help–but it’s hard to accept help when you are supposed to be the helper. I can only go to the store when my face feels brave enough to look like a teacher who has it all together. Even then, I definitely, always, stay away from the birthday card aisle, because who wants their kid in the class with the teacher who can’t go to the store without crying at the anniversary cards or birthday cards for wife or husband?

    Thank you, Bart, for sharing your obstacle course of emotions at the grocery store. You are not alone. Your description of your son and daughter is so real and wrenching. Keep writing!

  15. Gigi said on November 2, 2013 at 11:58 am ... #

    So very, very true. My son was also friendly and full of life and noticed by lots of people – sometimes for bad behavior but usually good behavior or just ornery boy stuff. Losing him has been devastating and lonely. I am trying to let the memory of his wonderful spirit help me to heal. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Robin said on December 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm ... #

    I recently suddenly lost my 28 year old son and also find the grocery store one of the most difficult places to go. You see, he was not married and he was my “helper” child… He loved grocery shopping …. even at 28 years old. He carried all the bags and even as an adult I heard the same words I had heard his whole life… “Mommmmmmmm…. can I have this” and he would throw it in the cart. In fact sometimes I would sneak out to shop without him b/c I knew the cost of groceries would double with him there… 🙂 I too just wander now through the store, filling the cart without much thought or care, watching all the children in the cart with a pain of remembering when my two boys were that age… I hate the grocery store now… and I thought it was just me… thank you 🙁

  17. Glenn said on March 15, 2015 at 6:10 pm ... #

    Thankyou so much for sharing this Bart. It rings so true.

    We recently lost our 21 year old daughter, who at the time of her passing was a 4th year Medical student. Every month or 2 I used to fly the 2 hours to visit her and her favourite activity was to have dad take her shopping. We would buy all the things she needed and a whole lot of things she didn’t need – but thats what dad’s are for, spoiling their girls. We’d shop all day, stopping for coffees, cake, lunch and so forth, collapsing from exhaustion at the end of the day to review our purchases have a pizza and a laugh.

    Shopping is just not the same now. 🙁


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