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The Role of Food in Grief, and How We Can Help

Part 2: Dinner for one.

Key points

  • Once a loved one dies, the widowed's appetite can be greatly diminished.
  • A person in grief can find it hard to care for themselves, and may need our help.
  • Tips for the bereaved include using a grocery list, keeping mealtime simple, and changing where you sit to eat.
  • Others can help those experiencing grief by bringing healthy snacks, offering to go grocery shopping with them, and providing general companionship.

Previously, we examined the customary purpose of food for the dead. Mourners believed their food offerings were helpful to the soul’s travels to the afterlife as well as a way of honoring and remembering their loved one. While feeding the dead has not been found in all parts of the world, bringing food to those in mourning is a universal custom. When the news of a death is made public, family and friends begin to bring food to the deceased’s home. There are funeral cakes, funeral pies, funeral potatoes, and of course the ubiquitous casserole. These are much-needed gifts because when someone we love dies, our appetite is greatly impacted. While people respond to stress in a variety of ways, changes in appetite is an almost universal component of grief. The majority of people tend to experience a loss of appetite. Food loses its appeal. People say, “I’m too upset to eat.” or “food doesn’t taste good to me anymore.” Not eating can lead to significant weight loss along with other physical problems. For some, food is comforting and as a result, they may tend to overeat to cope with their pain. This can lead to unwanted weight changes. People with eating disorders are particularly vulnerable during grief as these are the times that eating disorders can progress. What you do or do not put in your mouth is a way of feeling in control when everything around you feels out of control. Unhealthy eating habits can develop. Focusing on food and weight can also serve as a distraction from the pain of grief.

How Grief Impacts Appetite

Source: Lolostock/Shutterstock

For many widows and widowers, there are a number of factors that can contribute to losing the desire to eat. After years of cooking for someone and eating with them, mealtime can become a very lonely experience. Things that were once familiar—like shopping, cooking, and eating—now become overwhelming chores. We just don’t have the energy and motivation to do things anymore.

Some say that they do not know how to cook or shop for one person and then feel cooking is too much of a burden for them anyway. “Why should I bother?” Grocery shopping and passing up items we used to buy for our loved one makes the trip to the store painful. Friends and family may ask, “How are you doing?” but rarely do they ask whether or not we are eating. In fact, mealtime and bedtime can be the hardest parts of the day. When you might be used to cooking a full meal, putting something in the microwave to cook is just not the same thing. Sometimes it is just easier to skip a meal.

Ways the Bereaved Can Help Themselves

  1. Remember you are going through one of the most stressful times in your life. Be kind to yourself and do not put yourself under unnecessary pressure.
  2. Since our concentration tends to be impaired with grief, it might be helpful to write out a grocery list even if you never did so before. It is easy to get overwhelmed in the store and forget something.
  3. Try to keep mealtime simple. You may have fixed large meals before or been a gourmet cook, but for now keep it easy and uncomplicated.
  4. It may be helpful to change where you sit to eat. Many couples develop a routine of where they sit to drink coffee or tea together in the morning or where they eat dinner at night. Initially, it may be too painful to sit in these spots.
  5. Changing the times you eat can also be helpful. Staying with the usual time you both ate together might only enhance your pain. Many find the silence at mealtime unbearable. It is fine to put on some music, an audiobook, the computer or the television.
  6. Ask for help if you need it.
  7. A unique way of addressing these issues comes from a program called Culinary Grief Therapy.[1] Developed in the Chicago area, it can now be found in other parts of the country as well. See if there is one close to you. Widowed men and women receive instructions on simple and nutritious recipes. They cook and eat together as well as share grief coping strategies. As a side benefit, new friendships are formed with whom meals can be shared outside the group as well. It helps to know that you are not alone in your struggles to feed yourself after the loss of a loved one.

How We Can Help the Bereaved

A frequent complaint from the bereaved is that initially they receive lots of calls, visits, and food. After the first couple of weeks, these tend to subside. What can we—family and friends—do to help the bereaved during this difficult time.

  1. Bring over groceries to cook and eat a meal with them.
  2. If you know that there is a certain food they like, buy it for them.
  3. Bring fruit and vegetables over to their house so healthy snacks are available.
  4. Invite them to go shopping with you.
  5. When preparing food, set aside some portions to be frozen for later use. It will be appreciated.
  6. Bring them disposable dishes so they don’t have to worry about washing them.
  7. Be patient with the bereaved and listen to their feelings. You do not need to fix anything, just listen. Sometimes what is needed is just companionship.



More from Marilyn A. Mendoza Ph.D.
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