There’s something very special about food, especially when we examine the relationship we each have with it. For some, food is simply a way to fill a physical void, to rid ourselves of the unpleasant sensation of hunger. For others, food may fill an emotional emptiness, a way to escape mental and emotional pain.
And then there’s those who find themselves in the midst of a great loss, not feeling it matters too much one way or the other. With so many distractions filling the griever’s head, it’s possible this very basic need isn’t given too much thought at all.
Changes in diet or eating habits can be very common in grief, though the exact reasons for that seem to vary from one person to another, and the role food can play as a source of healing should not be overlooked:
Caregivers – For those who were long time caregivers, feeding oneself may have been seen just as an aside, something at the bottom of a very long list of priorities. A quick donut in the hospital cafeteria, or a microwave meal in the middle of the night as their loved one slept…for the caregiver, food became nothing more than an afterthought as they cared for their loved one, and unfortunately this is not an easy habit to break.
Spouses – Maybe it was your spouse or partner who did the cooking, and now that he/she is gone, you truly don’t know where to start and you’re not sure you’re all that interested in learning a new skill. For the ones who did the cooking, there seems little sense in cooking for one, or eating alone. Or maybe it’s the food store itself, filled with painful triggers, that can be such a difficult place for the newly bereaved to go.
Sudden loss – Have you ever been in a situation when you were simultaneously so hungry and so tired that you just didn’t know which need to meet first? I have, and I think for me, the tiredness always wins. Because eating takings energy – even thinking about what or where to eat takes energy and that’s something a griever just doesn’t have. Of course that can apply to any type of loss, but in the early days, having had no time to prepare, it’s those who have suffered a sudden loss who may struggle with this the most.
Survivors- And with it, survivor’s guilt. This is taking it a step further perhaps, but there are people left behind in the wake of a loss who feel that they’re not the ones who deserve to be here. This can happen with sudden loss and more specifically a loss to suicide, substance abuse, or violence. It can happen to a parent who has lost a child, or a person who was with their loved one when they died and literally survived (a car accident for example) when their loved one did not. Survivors may not feel worthy of the nourishment of life, and (subconsciously or not) they may refuse to give attention to this very basic need.
As I said before, there’s something very special about food, and in grief it’s worth taking a look at the very big and powerful role food can play in healing ourselves both physically and emotionally.
- Food as a healthy distraction. Our thoughts need a break from the constant barrage of grief, from the second guessing, from the worry, and from all the ways the pain seems to seep into every part of our head and our hearts. Let food be a distraction. Let it be something to look forward to. Think of the time it takes to plan, shop and cook. Watch a cooking show, take a class, or sign up for a local seminar about healthy eating (they seem to be everywhere these days). Planning and preparing food can allow us to be in the moment and it’s important to remember that taking time to step away from the grief to focus on a task immediately at hand can be very important for the griever.
- Food as a way to socialize. Unless you grow your own food, getting something to eat means getting out of the house, and that’s not usually a bad thing. Eating is a very social habit, and perhaps that’s part of what makes it so hard for the griever who was used to going out to eat or sharing a dinner at home with a partner. But in loss, the quest to nourish oneself may need a new perspective. Think of it as an excuse to reach out and see others, inviting a friend or family member out for a meal. Caregivers, for example, will often say that their relationships changed long before their loss as they just didn’t have time to socialize outside of their home. Use this opportunity to reconnect with the important people in your life.
- Food as comfort. So you’ll notice I’m not suggesting any specific type of diet here, because this definitely isn’t about dieting, and it most certainly isn’t about denial or deprivation. It’s not about losing weight or following a food trend. It’s about reconnecting with this very basic need and rediscovering the joy something so simple can bring to your life. Think of the way we have used food in our life to nourish someone who is sick, and realize you are the one who needs caring for.
- Food as a way to feel better. Focus on a time when you ate a truly healthy meal. Fresh ingredients, wholesome food. Did you feel good after you ate it? I find most people do. Nutritionists would say you feel better because of the vitamins and nutrients delivered to your body when you eat well. Like tuning up and filling a car with gas. People who consistently eat healthy have more energy to be alert and active during the day, which also leads to them sleeping better at night. Grieving takes a lot of energy and is exhausting, yet sleep depravation still plagues most people after loss. Eating well now means taking an opportunity to care for yourself in a way that perhaps you never did before, and unlike so many other things in life there’s no negative side effect to eating a healthy meal.
- Food as control. There’s a million reasons why the loss of a loved one is so hard. And I’ll add to that list, the feeling of helplessness experienced by those left behind. In a world full of choices, where we feel every step we take is based on the decisions we made to get there, loss can shatter the sense of control we thought we had over our lives. But taking control of our diet and our health is something that is within everyone’s power. And each day waking up and knowing that you have the power to make healthy choices for yourself is a force that should not be taken for granted.
In the end, it’s relatively simple. Where few things are, this actually can be as simple as a small shift in perspective, and recognizing the tools and options that are presented to you each day. As we hunger for healing, allow the food you eat (and how, where and with whom you eat it) to play a role in the care and coping you seek.
More than anything recognize that you are worthy of this time and attention…and remember to take care of yourself as your loved one would want you to do.
Food is just one tool in the quest for healing in grief. Finding ways to care for yourself and making good choices can impact coping, and finding good support among those who have also had a loss will always help. Join us today for opportunities to connect and tools for coping: www.griefincommon.com.