Reflections on Grief, Food & Therapy

In this article we explore how loss and grief can disrupt our relationship with food, whether we are drawn to or away from it. Linda Cundy will be exploring this subject through the lens of attachment theory in her talk at our upcoming conference Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders: Communication, Disconnection and Food (Saturday 24th April, with catch-up).

Reflections on Grief, Food & Therapy

Our relationship with food will often change when we experience grief and loss, and how this is experienced will be affected by the nature of the loss, our capacities to cope with distress, how our eating is as a default – influenced by our attachment styles, as well as cultural factors.

First reactions to loss and eating behaviours

Whether a loss is expected or sudden, it can still be experienced as a bodily shock. C.S Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed – “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”, capturing how, like trauma, grief is a physical experience that can feel all-consuming. He continues:

“I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed.”

With this somatic experiencing inevitably comes a disruption to our relationship with food. On a bodily level appetite can be diminished, removing usual food cravings, and nausea may be experienced. We can make sense of this by understanding how after a loss we may be in survival mode – potentially with our “threat system” activated. We may also experience foods differently, with an altered sense of taste that may impact on desires towards usually favoured foods.

Apathy and forgetting food

Food preparation can be also be forgotten, with the loss feeling all-consuming and affecting our sense of time within a day, or feel too much effort through exhaustion. There can also be a sense of existential apathy with a feeling of “what’s the point?”. The idea of chopping vegetables or stirring rice after a life-changing loss can feel simply bizarre.

Eating as a source of soothing and comfort during grief

While we may turn away from food, we may also be drawn to it. Since birth feeding has been linked to soothing for many of us and that can be the case in times of distressing, or – dissociated, emotion. When emotion is hard to sit with or process food can become a distraction, a comfort and a way of filling the “void” that may come with loss.

Food as social connection after a loss

With this idea of food as a method of soothing, it can also become something we can offer relationally. In the aftermath of a loss inevitably someone will offer to put the kettle on, biscuits or cake may be passed round and out of care loved ones may bring meals to pop in the oven. The act of eating can be comforting in itself but this gesture also acknowledges how hard it is to be expected to continue with normal life, including sustaining oneself nutritionally, when you’re in the midst of grief.

Image of a buffet spread of food on a table with people in background. Food can be a source of comfort and social connection when experiencing grief.

Food can be a source of comfort and social connection when experiencing grief. The post-funeral buffet at a wake often brings a sense of relief, and a chance for sharing stories over food.

Funerals are also a place where food’s role in comfort and connection is seen clearly, with the relief felt of moving from a service to the wake – knowing there will be tea, sandwiches, cake and whatever other buffet or hot foods are typical of the culture. On shared tables, over food, stories may be shared – with guests exchanging how they knew the deceased and fond memories.

When working with clients bereaved during lockdowns we have to be aware that these kinds of rituals around food and social connection may not have been possible to them – with limitations to funeral proceedings, often without a wake taking place or occuring in a very limited way. This sense of isolation can make the grief process all the more challenging.

Food as a reminder of loss

Being such a big part of our everyday lives, and linked with people we’re connected to, food can also act as a reminder of loss. The idea of setting the usual number of places at the table, only to realise that one less is needed, is a powerful image many of us will be familiar with.

It can also represent a change in role and as such a big change to day-to-day life if a deceased partner has usually taken care of food shopping, preparing and cooking. The partner left behind may struggle to take care of themselves, not being used to doing so in this way. Again, there can be a sense of apathy with the effort required to cook “just for one” feeling not worth it.

Image of an empty plate with cutlery on a table. Food can act as comfort during grief but also as a painful reminder of loss.

As well as being a potential source of comfort during grief, food can also be a painful reminder of the relationship that has been lost.

Mothers who have lost their babies also have the unique and incredibly painful experience of their breasts being ready to feed their baby with milk, only for that not to be possible. Of course no reminders are needed of a loss – but factors such as these are practical and emotional hurdles to navigate that will bring their own pain and difficulties.

Eating issues post-grief & therapy

We can see how appetite and eating behaviours can be an embodied response to grief, which we can work with in processing feelings around the loss. Out of care for clients’ wellbeing, we may also enquire as to how they are eating. Where food may be forgotten it is not as simple as telling a client to eat, but if they are struggling to care for themselves (and they may have lost someone who usually cares for them) we can check in on, and express care, around this – supporting them in finding ways to get by.

Grief, relationships & disordered eating

Working with bereaved clients we are bound to explore the relationship with the deceased, and how grief is impacted by this. Complex grief is more likely when relationships have been strained or there are regrets. What is also worth exploring though is the reactions of other people in the client’s life – have they been supported in their grief, or do they feel unseen or alone?

With some kinds of grief, including death by suicide and baby loss, there may be ideas around responsibility and blame – from both the self and others. This can lead to isolation and feeling alone at a time when the client most needs support, and also a sense of shame which, if unmet by empathy, can fester and grow. We know that shame can be a risk factor for many forms of disordered eating.

If clients are using food as a coping strategy it is because it is what is available to them to meet a need. We can look out for this, explore it and not judge it. Where a client may have felt alone in their grief, and any accompanying feelings that can be uncomfortable, we can be there with them, helping them feel less alone and to process and cope with what they are experiencing. In situations where it is apparent eating issues have remained after the initial reaction to a loss we need to be mindful of disordered eating or eating disorder red flags to ensure our client is receiving all the support they need.

>> Read our blogpost on Eating Disorder Myths & Misconceptions Therapists Need to Know, exploring who is impacted by disordered eating and how

Co-regulation in therapy after grief

If a client’s social network has also been impacted by the loss they may not be able to provide sufficient support – they will have their own grief. Even if they are supportive there may be a limit to what can be shared, with feelings of anger or numbness, for example, having to be pushed down around others. With traumatic grief, the co-regulation experienced in therapy may be deeply therapeutic – with a sense of being able to be at least somewhat grounded and connected during the session, where they feel unsettled and at sea in their day-to-day life. Or, if they bring that unsettled stormy energy into session, for that to be okay too – feeling safer to be with those feelings in the presence of the therapist.

Eating, grief & attachment

How our relationship with food changes in reaction to grief will be affected by our usual style of eating, and this may be formed by our original attachment styles.

“There are echoes of the way we relate to food that reminds us of the way we tend to relate to other people”
– Linda Cundy

If we are secure, we may still find our eating is disrupted by grief but potentially not to the same extent as if we have an avoidant attachment style – where withdrawing from food may be more common, for example.

Linda Cundy will be exploring the link between attachment, food and loss in further depth, and considering what happens when our attachment figures die, at our upcoming conference Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders: Communication, Disconnection and Food. Here she is introducing her talk “The Last Supper: Attachment, Loss – and Food”:

Grief & eating: food for thought

We hope you’ve found these reflections on the link between grief and food interesting. These are but a glimpse of the connection that is there – Linda Cundy will be taking us deeper into how our attachment style influences our eating behaviours throughout life, and in times of loss and distress. If you’d like to share your own reflections, on the piece or your own experiences such as any foods you associate with loss, please feel free to leave these in the comments.

Book by the end of Wednesday 14th April to get 50% off Linda Cundy’s on-demand video training on food & attachment, a perfect introduction or accompaniment to the conference.

Disordered Eating or Eating Disorders: Communication, Disconnection and Food 

Saturday 24th April (with catch-up)
with Professor Julia Buckroyd, Yeva Feldman and Linda Cundy

This is sure to be an insightful and impactful day with practical take-aways for client work around clients with eating disorders or those who have issues around food in various ways. We’ll look at the meaning underneath eating issues, and how we can help clients understand these and move toward healthier ways of coping.

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