Late in the summer of 2010 I was on the tiny Greek island of Paxos with my husband, Ollie, and our best friends. That trip was the stuff that holidays are made of: a sun-drenched Ionian dreamscape of deserted beaches, tranquil swims, barbecued seafood back at the villa and a study in pork gyros.
We rented a boat and spent an incredible day exploring the island's coastline, hopping from bay to bay, with the odd stop for a cold, foamy Mythos. That night, for dinner, we settled into a tiny outdoor taverna in Gaios square we’d had our eye on for a few days that specialised in all the big Greek names. They had one kleftiko left, which we were both craving, and I thank God I let Ollie have that slow lemony lamb scented with mountain herbs, paired with a charmingly rough carafe of house red, because walking back to the villa he died. He'd been killed instantly by a genetic heart condition all the experts had said was no longer a risk. Later I was told there was nothing anyone could have done.
Heavily medicated and back in London I had an uncharacteristic indifference to food. My memories of that time are foggy – for I was in a deep, deep fog – but I have a vivid recollection of wandering the aisles of Waitrose trying to find something, anything, that I wanted to eat. I eventually chose a tub of crab pâté and a demi baguette, but aside from that I mostly lived on Dextro energy tablets and prodigious amounts of wine. Though I went back to work, to our flat and to most of my life immediately, I simply couldn’t cook or eat properly.
And my experience is not a solitary one. Films and TV portraying grief may have us spooning Ben & Jerry’s into our mouths on the sofa among takeaway detritus, but the true-life picture is often different, as I found from scouring social media for others’ experiences. LV, on Twitter, recalls "only eating Fruit Pastilles" after a devastating breakup. Andy, also via Twitter, chimes in: "The agonising loneliness made my appetite disappear. I was always a huge eater and massively overweight, but I barely ate anything for weeks."
Films and TV portray grief as devouring Ben & Jerry's on the sofa, but the reality is different
A food writer friend navigating some difficult personal waters concurs, saying, "My appetite disappeared for most of last year and a lot of this year. I’ve lost 10kg in 11 months." She doesn’t have that to lose and wants to gain it back, but with no appetite is finding she can only manage small amounts of very bland foods; doubly distressing for someone with such a love of food usually.
So, why is it that grief can hit us so very hard in the stomach? Natalie Cawley, Counselling Psychologist and Psychotherapist at principlepsych.com explains: "When experiencing grief we can feel disconnected from everything in our lives, and this can include appetite and the pleasure once associated with food."
"In Mourning Beyond Melancholia, Freud states loss is 'a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, and inhibition of all activity.' In this sense many of us lose the capacity for self-compassion or to love ourselves. Feeding ourselves is a fundamental way of nurturing ourselves and is associated with feelings of love and connectedness. Feeding from the mother or attachment figure as infants is our first profound experience of being connected, nourished, attended to and cared for, so attempting to engage in this when we have lost a figure of love can feel intolerable."
The trope of 'comfort eating' in times of extreme emotional distress and loss does not exist for nothing though, and the eating and grieving experience is individual. Others may try to feed their broken heart, as a friend who lost a family member to suicide recalls: "During that mourning time I wanted to eat more, but they had to be easy things. I lacked the desire to do much and just wanted to bung in oven food: meatballs, lasagne, baked risotto, gnocchi… I like a dish with melted cheese on top when I’m sad."
Similarly, Jamie Klingler, founder of Mr Hyde’s National Burger Day and London Seafood Festival found that her eating went haywire after the loss of her mother last summer, "I was prescribed an antidepressant that sent my existing nausea from my sadness into crazy overdrive. I basically ate mashed potato for a month, then we had the excess of Christmas. It took me a long time to get back to normal eating."
"Loss can make us feel a compulsion to eat or to eat excessively, known as hyperphagia," Cawley says. "This is because we delay, distort and substitute our drives at an unconscious level, so in excessive eating we are trying to substitute gratification in food for other needs that we have lost, such as love and attachment." Friends and family, too, play an important part when one is trying to navigate the grieving and eating path.
LV mentioned the scene in Sex and the City 2 where Samantha spoon-feeds Carrie breakfast in her dark hotel room after being jilted by Big, and though we’ve not all had a luxurious Mexican hideaway to recuperate in like Carrie, we’ve surely all known the well-meaning nagging from our nearest and dearest to look after ourselves in tough periods. I’m reminded of the brilliant post by wine writer Fiona Beckett, The Healing Power of Pie, in which she is helped through the rawness of her husband’s sudden passing by friends unexpectedly bringing various delicious pies to her house. In time these gestures manage to cut through her swirling, grief-induced nausea and she finds that she is able to enjoy food on some level.
On the same theme, LV remembers that her friends "used to bring round McDonald’s and vodka" to try and tempt her; while my friends hijacked my diary and arranged 'lasagne at Amy's' or 'cheese night' when I was incapable of thinking of such things. Then there was my Mum trying to get me to help cook a Greek-inspired roast chicken dish with herbs and spices I’d bought in Paxos, which I had no desire for at all. Greek food, and other evocative dishes felt insurmountable at that time; Ollie and I had a shared love of cooking and food and I felt a sense of guilt to be enjoying it now he was gone.
Again, Cawley explains why many of us find this so challenging during a period of grief: "Certain foods, cooking or sharing meals that we once carried out together become impossible because once the person is gone, the associated responses such as feelings of warmth or pleasure that our minds have long symbolised this person with are unendurable: they are now intrinsically associated with the loss. Furthermore, carrying out the practices or processes of eating or preparing meaningful foods comes to represent further loss, as we now relinquish the emotional ties to the lost person."
Truffled toast at Spuntino and 'meat fruit' at Dinner by Heston were different enough to be manageable
Eventually, though, the nagging of our friends to care, cook and eat for ourselves sinks in. We may not feel ready to revisit those emotionally difficult restaurants, dishes or ingredients, but it may be that there is a new way to enjoy food. I started going out to restaurants three or four times a week – which my bank account and waistband felt keenly, but so did my mind. I wanted to feel something about food again, and safari-ing my way around the London food scene was a good way to do it; it kept me busy – for we must all keep busy, you know – and it gave me new positive food associations. Of pan-Asian duck at Gilgamesh’s long-gone rose-petalled tables, of carnitas burritos at Benito's Hat, of oozy truffled toast at Spuntino and of the 'meat fruit' at Heston's Dinner; all exotically new and different enough to be manageable. More than manageable.
Klingler says the same; that she didn’t feel ready to make anything linked to her old food memories with her mother, but ploughed her way through Asma Khan's Asma's Indian Kitchen with aplomb and much paneer. As an aside, Khan’s book is utterly brilliant, filled with joy and riotous colour and spice on each page and would be a good place to start if you’ve fallen out of love with food as you know it. If you’re a person who has historically used the kitchen as a therapy space, try and do so.
Several people told me that baking helped them – even if it meant eating the spoils all to yourself. Judy Joo, chef-patron of Jinjuu, likes to make bread: "The act of kneading, monotonous, and rather mindless, is so therapeutic when grieving or when my heart feels heavy. I usually make challah, as I like the braiding of the dough; long fat logs twisted into intricate plaits allows me to forget for a moment. And, the denouement – a comforting, warm, soft slice of eggy, buttery goodness smeared with salted butter will at least for the time being make my tummy happy, even if I am not."
I'm no baker, but in time I started wanting to cook for family, friends and myself again with small forays into tapas all the way up to Sunday lunches. 'Firsts' of anything are always gut-wrenching, but now, instead of demonising certain dishes, I think of my late husband whenever I make his favourites (chicken tikka masala, samosas) and make them on significant dates to keep those difficult memories present. Klingler made her mother’s meatball recipe for Mother’s Day (albeit a mistaken week early) recently and reported that she found it 'cathartic'.
I'm back to Greece next week – though not Paxos – and will feast on plates of tzatziki, spanakopita and perhaps even a kleftiko. Because though it seems incomprehensible when people trot out the 'time is a healer' cliché as grief is eating you up... it's annoyingly, gratefully, true.