Eating with Grief

Hobji no food adj - Eating with GriefEating affects the way we feel, how we function and how are bodies repair. This is especially important when we are under stress or coping with a significant loss. In my blog Grief Lessons, I described how I lost my appetite after my first husband left me in 1984. Loss of appetite is not an unusual response to grief when the stomach is tied in knots and the new reality feels so indigestible. Not everyone loses their appetite to grief, of course. Overeating is also an option. A lot of factors are involved in the way food and grief combine.

Beside the basic question of whether a particular food is nutritionally good for you, there are emotional, social and historical factors around eating. These extra factors operate all the time, but get amped up under stress.

Take chocolate as an example —

According to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association August 2003 issue, dark chocolate may actually benefit your health. (I wonder who funded that study.) It is rich in flavanols which help lower blood pressure. It also creates a feeling of well being, because when eaten it releases Phenylethylamine and Seratonin, two naturally occurring substances in the brain that are mood lifting. Lowered blood pressure and mood elevation sound like just what the doctor ordered for times of grief. Small amounts of the stimulants theobromine and caffeine speed the mood altering effect of the chocolate and give a nice physical boost. Is there any wonder that so many of us reach for chocolate when feeling sad?

Social and emotional associations with chocolate may have an even stronger influence on our decision. In my family of birth, chocolate occupied a revered position. My mother handed it out as a reward for being good, on special occasions like birthdays and as a palliative for feeling bad. There was always a large stash of it in the freezer just in case. Was it dark chocolate? I think it must have been as it is the only kind I eat.

One of the last pleasures my father enjoyed as he receded into the nether worlds of Alzheimer’s was the taste of chocolate. The chocolate came from my mother hand imbued with spousal love. Even if he couldn’t remember the association, the cells of his body probably did. Such pleasure would shine on his otherwise blank face as he received her chocolate offering on his tongue.

My husband George also loves chocolate and so the family pattern repeats. I do not keep a stash, but he receives chocolate tokens of my love on all the special occasions.

When George’s father Tom went skiing in the Alps in the winter, something he did for years with a group of friends, he always brought back a supply of very special chocolate made in Italy — Marjani chocolate. It melts in your mouth thick and rich and exquisite unlike anything made in the States. It was something he and George shared, this reverence for Marjani — always eaten in small sacramental amounts to savor and extend the pleasure. Tom, now in his late 80s, no longer takes those winter trips and the Marjani supply has gradually dwindled to nothing. When Tom finally passes from this world, I hope not any time soon, I think we will have to take a trip to the Alps, maybe to spread some of his ashes, certainly to celebrate his life with Marjani chocolate.

Such lovely familial associations and a scientific recommendation as well — yet chocolate is a problem for me. When I have too much — and what is too much is hard to pinpoint — I become emotionally temperamental. I lose patience, am easily frustrated, and my Scorpionic temper surges. I also seem a bit more fearful, unsure, dissatisfied. Is this really because of the chocolate? I stop eating chocolate and in a day or two my emotions even out and the crisis passes. I wish I could stay that way calm and even tempered, but I forget about the connection and chocolate creeps back on the menu. Perhaps it is not the chocolate, just the way I handle stress. Maybe giving up chocolate is just my attempt to exert control. You see where my mind goes. I am haunted, at the same time, by the stunning claim of a nutritionist I heard at a talk recently — she has adopted a rather radical diet (devoid of all gluten, and not just wheat. Chocolate is also off limits). She says that through this diet she has truly become herself. “Truly herself” — it conjures up visions of spiritual embodiment, power, clarity of purpose and courage. Is it possible that spiritual contentment is simply a matter of what we eat?

What I have shared about chocolate is true of all of our food. There is emotional baggage, history, and memory as well as complex chemical interactions within each individual. Some foods make us feel loved and nurtured, other deprived and punished, still others we tagged as decadent, immoral, indulgent and even dangerous.  Nothing is neutral.

When significant loss happens, it affects our eating — big time. Besides the effect on appetite, there are all the stories, fond memories, lost moments, and awful regrets. Healthy eating is essential to our healing, but we need to go easy on ourselves. Food is complicated even in the best of times.

Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Ask friends and family to prepare some easy-to-heat meals. This has the benefit of imbuing the food with the healing wishes of the cook. But be careful who you ask. Do not eat food made with guilt, obligation or under emotional duress. It will likely seep into the food and you have enough of that on your own.
  • Allow friends to take you out for a meal. The socializing can be uplifting and you get out of the house. Again be discerning. Go with people who can handle your grief and not force you to act okay when you’re really not. Public outings can be stressful and unexpected emotional triggers may occur.
  • Buy quick foods or deli items that only take a minute to prepare. This is not the most healthful or cost conscious option but can come in handy when all that’s around is a stale bag of chips.
  • Create a large pot of soup, undressed salad or huge fruit smoothie that will feed you all day or even several days. Careful not to cry in the soup. What’s true for other cooks is true for you too. You might try playing energizing music while you cook.
  • Supplement your eating with superfoods like spirulina or blue green algae. You can skip meals or eat light and still get all your essential nutrients. I’ve found that when I take two algae tablets while fasting (is it still fasting?), I do not lose my energy at all. This is not a long-term solution especially for those struggling with low weight. But it will get you through a rough patch.
  • Eat what feels right and don’t worry about it. This is the best tip. Whatever happens is simply part of your journey. See earlier blog, Grief Lessons. Sometimes you need to eat chocolate in order to let go. The other options will be there when you need them.

Grief teaches us that we are not in control. It’s a good thing to learn.

What are your best food strategies for handling grief and stress? Please share.

I you would like to learn more tips and strategies for living with grieving, join me for the launch of my new website and coaching program Transforming Loss from Surviving to Thriving. There will be three free teleconference calls on effective ways to heal grief, transformative gifts and a drawing for special prizes. Got to our Launch Page.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at



  1. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for

  2. Excellent site you have here.. It’s hard to find high-quality writing like yours nowadays.
    I seriously appreciate people like you! Take care!!

  3. I love this article, as I just lost my Dad a few weeks ago. I was actually doing some research as I am a Certified Health Coach. I noticed you said we can post this article. May I share this on my blog?

    • Michelle Peticolas says:

      Hi Kellie, Yes, you can post it on your blog so long as you include the blub at the bottom with the link back to my site. Sorry to hear about your Dad. How are you doing? Was his death expected or sudden? Sending you love and healing thoughts.

  4. Kerry Kennelly says:

    I am seeking some advice… I have an elderly female client who was just admitted to a nursing home; she is not eating, losing weight, and despite being on some meds to address both appetite and depression, she reports that she is afraid to eat. She lost two adult sons in the last 8 months… one to a heart attack, the other to cancer. She reports that she would like to eat, but can’t seem to swallow the food, and is afraid to eat. I think that what she can’t swallow is 2 facts: she had two children die and now her life is out of control. Whenever I’ve tried to meet with her and support her grief, she doesn’t want to talk…. not about not eating, not about her sons, not about anything. After a few minutes, she dismisses me and rolls over to go to sleep. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Michelle Peticolas says:

      Dear Kerry, I’m so sorry to hear about the losses of you client and her struggles. You intuition about not being able to swallow the loss of her two children makes sense. Our feeling are reflected in our bodies. Several things you can try other than getting a family member to approve of intravenous feeding — Let your heart guide you. She needs to cry. She needs to release the emotional energy, the tears she is holding in her throat. Play music that is heartful. Do you know what music she likes? Sing if you have the voice, or hum softly. Send love and healing. Pray for her sons. Do you know her religion? Let this guide you. Does she have family members? Ask them to visit her. If she shows signs of being interested in talking, ask about her sons. I hope this gives you some ideas. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

      • Kerry Kennelly says:

        Thank you… on my way to see her this morning…. will let you know how it goes. I like your ideas and will give them good effort.

        • Kerry Kennelly says:

          HI Michelle,
          Saw my poor grieving lady… she admitted she’s choked up with her grief… and we worked on that…she tried to shut down several times, but with encouragement, she kept going and kept talking…. thanks for your help.

          • Michelle Peticolas says:

            Thank you for sharing you success. Glad to be of help. So important to release the emotional energy! Was she able to eat after that?

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