Some people can’t eat. Others may take comfort and refuge in food. Under stress, when grief hits, which road do you take? Your hunger may wax and wane with the phases of the moon. After all, appetite changes are in the list for Is My Grief Normal? 20 pounds of your grief might be up, down or the yo-yo between as you battle the scale along with your grief.
Food and drink are often as much social as nourishing. We celebrate with food. Family and cultural traditions center on food. We show love and care with food. Food is often given and received as a gift. Food can unknowingly be about trying to gain some control when things are beyond our abilities to do something.. anything. “I can control what I (don’t) eat,” or “I just can’t seem to stop.” These are often an unconscious reaction to stress.
Caregivers may be especially prone to weight changes while encouraging their loved one to eat as cancers or illness devour the loved one and his or her appetite diminishes. Some may eat to fill time or to encourage their loved one to eat more, or not eat in sacrifice to the fact a loved one isn’t eating. Widows and widowers may find since meal time lacks their spouse, she or he will either eat for the two of them or skip the meal altogether so as to not face the empty chair. Parents may be in such as haze as to put anything on the table without regard to what or when. Children of all ages may try to recreate the favorite comfort foods to comfort themselves. The drive-thru can become the easiest way through grief and convenience. Food and eating may become an additional burden for getting through the day. Grocery shopping is troublesome. Or grocery shopping might be the only time a caregiver finds time alone. Soda, caffeine and alcohol may seem to be the easy way to “keep going” or “numb” the pain.
Grief, regardless of type of loss, can set off a self destructive mindset. “What does it matter?” you might think, before indulging a second helping of cake. Sadness can have you in bed for days, not eating. You then cycle downward into fatigue, no energy to make a meal, no energy to get up and thus stay longer in bed. What does it matter?
You and your health do matter. Body and mind integration are reflective of how you are managing your grief journey. Weight is one of the more noticeable outward changes in health. When you shift back into the mode (or even for the first time) of healthy self care, you have taken an important long step on your healing journey.
My 20 Pounds of Grief
A couple of years before my husband Dave’s diagnosis of his fatal lung cancer I had reinvented my health regimen. I intuitively recognize that he was slowing down, and for me, dragging in the 30# bag of dog food was becoming difficult. I was in mid-life mode (read, menopause) so my own metabolism was changing, fast. I began to exercise three and four times weekly and joined a gym with friends for both my social and health life. I took the dog out regularly as part of my “thinking time” each day. I ate sensibly. Dave and I always split any restaurant take-out meals to reduce calories, my luxury since we didn’t actually go out to eat together because of his health issues. I had a personal trainer for strength development. I bought a new wardrobe for business and play. I felt much better than I had in previous years. I hadn’t been terribly overweight (scales were pushing the top of suggested Body Mass Index score), but normal body aging along with work and life stress had changed my personal landscape over the years. Even at the time, it was a mindset and commitment to maintain, but worth it because I felt so much better.
Then, Dave’s terminal diagnosis came during Fall holiday, already an easy over-indulgent eating time of year. Silent and fearful thoughts of “our last” were worrisome. I began “to celebrate” moments and literally take in all I could. By February, cancer forced his retirement, and the progression of disease limited his strength and ability to get around. Family and friends naturally began arriving to talk and love and listen. We all encouraged his eating, bringing boxes of chocolates, making his favorite delicious ice cream and root beer floats, and whatever seemed to be an enticing treat to add calories to a body burning by cancer. He did eat initially. And so did I, both politely and willingly, because, hey, it was chocolate, sugary and delicious!
In time, his eating slacked, but I continued. In fact, I often finished what he couldn’t eat, like a parent making sure it didn’t go to waste. In time, I turned more of my attention to being his legs along with my own. Getting out was about getting groceries, doing the necessary and less on my social and personal health. In the midst of the stress I was manifesting some strange symptoms of my own. (Not so unusual for a caregiver it turns out.) The first sign was that my eyes would keep bouncing after walking the dog. So I stopped walking the dog! Then slowly I began having trouble with disequilibrium and blood pressure changes. So I stopped spin class, and eventually strength training, as well as walking, as these exacerbated the symptoms. Cause and effect. In the midst of my husband’s cancer, my health was going down the tubes, although differently than his.
Long story short, over the two and half years from his diagnosis to the one year anniversary of his death I gained 20 (well, more like 25) pounds, had head surgery for an inner ear disturbance and was diagnosed with arthritis in both hips. That mid-life woman who had control a few years ago was feeling out of control as aging came along at a rapid, unhappy pace in the journey.
It Matters Why
I am happy to say that in my grief journey I am back into a healthy mindset and body! Mind is foremost, because the body is still a work in progress and may be for a while, ahem, always. But I have shed those 20 pounds rather easily in the past couple of months. I fit comfortably in those clothes from before Dave’s illness. I have made the shift to a change for how and what I eat. I am slowly and methodically pushing through the intense body work I require to regain the best health I can. I am educating myself to current nutrition rather than relying on old ways. It takes a lot of time, effort and support – this is rehab – but I have determined I am worth it. This is the key, the secret, to doing what it takes to make healthy food and exercise choices. This is a priority in my life. The reward is life affirming! More importantly, this care keeps me out of the surgeon’s office for now.
The Impact of Grief
One step in the Work of Grief is to determine the areas of impact loss has in your life. Grief after the death of a significant person will obviously impact us immediately, but the wider and more far reaching consequences may come later, months or even years. Some of my grief appeared as a few too many pounds and serious health problems, creating a sluggish outlook for getting through. Would I have had arthritis otherwise? Eventually. But did all the stair climbing I did as a caregiver, and stress and eating ice cream contribute to my weight and health? Absolutely! (However, I would eat ice cream again with Dave if given the chance! but in a healthier more conscious way!) Really, the reality is that now in my widowhood I am responsible for care to myself in new ways.
When I challenged my grief at Harmony Hill, I recognized how critical food is as nourishment to both my body and soul. They have magical chefs there! Through my grief work, I turned my mind to understanding the importance of loving myself and my body in nourishing ways. Food is one part of the equation.
Why Change Can Happen for You
I can tell you exactly what I’ve done diet-wise. It’s tempting, because I do feel great and who doesn’t want to share that? But I won’t, because in the same way grief is universal and loss is individual, health is universal, yet your body and lifestyle have their own special needs and solutions. You need to discover why you want to feel better and then what will work for you.
When you do the work of grief, that is, travel the road to face your pain and meaning of loss, you can decide you are worthy of feeling well once again. Then, nourishing your healthy self is based on love rather than fear. It will not be a matter of diet, but a matter of your heart and mind coming together for living your best and healthy life forward.