The Weight of Grief

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The existence of the mind-body connection has been scientifically proven. What happens to the mind affects the body and vice versa. This is especially true when grief hits. For my entire life, when stressed, my eating habits would worsen, and I would not have time to exercise. This led to weight-gain which I have battled on and off for years. Yet, within only one week after my husband died, I had lost almost 20 pounds. This was something I had never encountered before and was unsure how to manage. Of course, not everyone’s body responds to grief and loss the way mine did, and there is no way to know how the body will react.

People Worry About Our Weight

When grieving, loved ones tend to focus on us and our appearance more than usual. They note what clothes we wear and look for signs that we are taking care of ourselves. This comes from a place of concern, assuredly. Unfortunately, it can add more stress to an already hard situation. One relative told me after my husband died that they thought I had an eating disorder. It was understandable to be concerned since, for some, grief can trigger the development or the recurrence of an Eating Disorder. The irony was that I worked with an Eating Disorder specialist as we shared an office, and I was regularly seeking her advice on how to keep from losing more weight.

Gender, Grieving and Weight

Being a woman and grieving has its own unique obstacles to overcome. This is due in part to the social impact on image and weight. I recall a dinner with extended family only a few months into grieving. Someone told me that I looked great after having lost weight.  At any other time in my life, I would have received this as a compliment, but I did not. In regards to weight gain, on the other hand, I imagine similar issues and more silence from those around the person grieving. Concern might be voiced about “letting yourself go” and not “keeping up one’s appearance.” If ever there were a time for weight and looks to not matter, it should be during grief. Still, good intentions continue to interfere.

What Can Help Regulate 

It has been a little over three years since my husband died. I have gained back all of the “grief weight” I had originally lost. There were some things I found that worked to help me get back to a healthy weight:

  • Eating small pieces of food consistently over time
  • Selecting mostly healthy food
  • Keeping snacks with me most of the time
  • Gradually incorporating regular aerobic exercise into my routine
  • Doing yoga for stress relief
  • Drinking smoothies when I did not feel like I could eat solid food

 Others Can Help

Reflecting on what my support circle did during this time, there were small things which made the difference. Invitations for me to go to yoga classes with them helped. Smoothies brought to me at work helped. It was the constant inquiry and support of my self-care that helped. It was the lack of judgment about my appearance or weight that helped. When I brought up my weight loss, they asked me how I felt about it instead of making a comment. I am extremely grateful for them and their help. They were excellent guides in the unfamiliar land of grief (and weight loss).

Overall…

It is my hope that by sharing my experience, and what I learned from it, that others may benefit and become better grief supporters. Dealing with grief and trying to help others going through it is very challenging. And, just as I discovered, you don’t have to journey alone…

*Note: If you do suspect that someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a mental health professional. Eating disorders can be life threatening.

Resources and References

Cohen, M.A. (2016). Grief and eating disorders. Edreferral.com.

Ekhern, J. & Karges, C. (2014). Trauma, grief & eating disorders. EatingDisorderHope.com.

Emotions and health. (2008). NIH Medline Plus, Winter 3(1), 4.

PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <11/2014>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/caregivers/planning/bereavement-hp-pdq. Accessed <03/08/2016>. [PMID: 26389487]

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