Psychotherapy and Training Collective of New York

Dear Readers,
This is the first of a three-part series entitled
Frozen Grief and Emotional Eating.

Click HERE to read Part 2.

  Frozen Grief and Emotional Eating

By Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD

Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength. — Ovid

Patty was an obese binge eater who came to therapy prompted by a diagnosis of pre-diabetes. We began to discuss what triggered her history of overeating and about her life experiences. In a most casual way, she mentioned the early death of her father.

Patty was four years old when her father died. He had been sick for several years and when he died, her family told her, "Daddy went to Heaven. He is in a better place." Daddy was never spoken about again.

"Tell me about him," I asked. "There's nothing to tell," Patty replied. And with that, she began to cry as the accumulation of 32 years of stifled tears came surging up in a tidal wave of pain.

"Oh my God. I have never shed tears for my father before," Patty sobbed.

With each following session, Patty cried deeply about the death of her father. Then one day she exclaimed, "I wonder if after so many years of not allowing myself to mourn my father, my fat has been like frozen grief. I think with all these tears, my grief is becoming liquid!"

Grief — frozen by fat, frozen by the numbing of overeating, starving, or purging—can be held in the body for years and even decades. Patty's description of "frozen grief" reminded me of a special moment I spent with my grandmother many years ago. Grandma was 86 at the time and was telling me about her father who had died when she was only five years old. To my astonishment, Grandma began to cry about her father's death — a memory from 81 years ago! In that moment, I learned that grief has no timetable. Time does not necessarily heal all wounds. Unspoken loss continues to exert its power. There is no expiration date to memories or pain. I came to see how much loss and grief can play a significant part in the emotional eating of my patients. I thought about how chronic eating disorders can be related to unresolved frozen grief. And I came to see how therapy for emotional eating needs to help people mourn the sorrows that have kept them stuck in bingeing, purging, starving, or body self-hatred.

I began asking my patients to construct a list of losses they had suffered in their lives. I discovered that these losses did not always have to do with death, but with a myriad of ways that hurt can lodge inside us without resolution. Unable to dislodge the "knot" in their throat by crying and grieving, many eating disorder patients turn to bingeing, purging, or starving.

Louise, bulimic and anorexic, described her losses and pain: "I came from a poor family where neither of my parents held down full-time work. We had to move all the time during my childhood because we couldn't pay the rent. No sooner did I try to make friends at school, then we had to abruptly leave the neighborhood. I eventually married and found out my husband was having an affair with my best friend. After we divorced, he then married her. I went through two losses for the price of one."

To look at Louise, you would never know she harbored so many traumatic ruptures. Although she was very bright with a close circle of girlfriends, the unspoken, underground fears and anguish of her early life continued to exert their pull. They led her to seek the pain-relieving medication of purging and starving. Unable to connect with the rage at her lifelong deprivation, Louise could not move forward to mourn.

Only when Louise began to untangle and express her anger and vulnerability in her therapy could she allow me (and herself) to empathize with the inner little girl who was not well taken care of. Nurtured by our relationship, she finally began to mourn her many sorrows which helped her gradually restore better self-care and healthier eating.

Walter came from a wealthy family with three homes, a boat, maids, and nannies. He was bulimic since his early teens and, in spite of the family's riches, had his own list of hardships that he had never discussed or sorted through — the opposite spectrum from Louise. He revealed: "I knew early on that my mother was cheating on my father — she had a woman lover. My mother ferried me around to our various homes, and she had a parade of different nannies taking care of me and my brother.

"Both of my parents were heavy drinkers and completely self-involved. My father died of alcoholism when I was 20."

Walter had suffered ongoing neglect from both parents, ruptures with homes and nannies, and the traumatic death of his father. "Bulimia is so all-consuming that it has helped me ignore my hurt. When I'm not eating and purging, I'm very depressed. I'd rather be eating and purging."

Mourning for what he did not have, for what he wished he had, and for what he never would have was bitterly painful for Walter. His bulimia provided a cocoon of deadness. With time and with therapy and a support group, he became less detached from his emotions and was filled with great anger and sadness.

Feeling bad was actually progress for Walter. He was finally feeling rather than numbing. As he absorbed the ongoing companionship and compassion from his therapist and group, the warmth of these connections helped him speak about his painful experiences and thaw his grief. The comfort of other people enabled him to relinquish the protection of bulimia and embrace new possibilities of trusting and supportive relationships.

Blanca alternated between binge eating and chronic dieting: "I never had any big trauma in my life, just drama. I had this constant grinding fear and unhappiness, with my parents always yelling, screaming, fighting. The atmosphere in our house — at the dinner table, even on holidays — was fraught with tension and upset. I knew my parents didn't love each other. It always hurt like hell, but when I discovered dieting and overeating, I just froze, and the pain didn't matter so much anymore."

Maureen, a binge eater, described an example of her grandmother's frozen grief. The grandmother's favorite child, her only son, a beautiful boy with bright red hair, died when he was two years old. Several years later, the grandmother had a little daughter — Maureen's mother. When this little daughter turned two years old, the grandmother began dying her hair a bright red as if attempting to resurrect her dead son. Frozen grief. There is no passage of time.

What Is Grief?
Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to any kind of loss. The symptoms of grief are varied:
  Missing, yearning, longing
  Remembering, reviewing
  Feeling like you are going crazy and losing your mind
  Bingeing, purging, starving, rigid dieting

Mourning is the process of sorting out these emotions. We experience, explore, express, and integrate our grief, finally adjusting to going on with our lives despite our loss. It is the inner process of letting go.

Mourning is not a linear progression of moving from point A to point Z and then we are done. Mourning does not have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is like being lost at sea. Some memories and emotions, like strong ocean waves, knock you down by their sheer force. Other waves are gentle, lapping at your feet, making you smile with a soft sadness. Mourning has its ebbs and flows — a high tide with upsurges and hidden riptides that can ambush you and fill you with heartache. And mourning has a low and placid tide. Everyone's grief and mourning are profoundly personal and unique.

Other Losses
Death is not the only grief that wounds our heart and soul. Any loss or change or trauma or transition in our lives can feel like a threat to our sense of stability, security and self.

One of the most unusual experiences of grief I have witnessed was that of Rodolfo, a family friend who had suffered through the earthquake in Mexico City of 1985, which killed 10,000 people. Although Rodolfo did not lose any loved ones, he became quite depressed, "Because of this earthquake, I no longer trust gravity — something you just always take for granted. I trusted gravity and it betrayed me and my country. I feel like I've lost my innocence and faith in the universe." Rodolfo literally had the "earth pulled out from under him" and was grieving this trauma.

Many kinds of loss can trigger significant grief:
  Marital separation
  Breakup of romantic relationship
  Personal injury or illness
  Family injury or illness
  Losing one's job/home
  Financial loss
  Suicide in the family (which also causes shame, secrecy, and feelings of betrayal)
  Sexual or physical abuse/violence
  Family member serving in the military
  Miscarriage/abortion/fertility problems
  Giving up driving because of age or health
  Death of a beloved pet
  National tragedy, such as 9/11 or hurricanes Katrina and Sandy
  Anticipatory grief: When we know that someone we love is going to die, we begin the emotional rehearsal for the upcoming loss
  Stopping smoking/drinking/drugging/eating disorder behaviors

We suffer losses not only through death. As Judith Viorst writes, we feel loss "also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safety — and the loss of our own younger self, the self that thought it would always would be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal."1

  1 Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses (Simon & Schuster, 1984), 15.

In part 2, we will discuss our culture's "hurry up and get over it" messages about mourning, and how to unfreeze grief and restart the mourning process.

Mary Anne Cohen is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders. This is an excerpt from her book, French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating which is available for 9 Continuing Ed credits for social workers, psychologists, addiction professionals, and mental health counselors: