Psychotherapy and Training Collective of New York

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

Click HERE to read Part 1.

  Frozen Grief and Emotional Eating:
  Part 2

By Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD

Our culture, deeply uncomfortable with death, dying, and grieving, encourages us to stifle our feelings. Mourners are advised:
  • God never gives you more than you can handle.
  • Keep busy!
  • Be strong!
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • He's in a better place.
  • You need to snap out of your isolation and start getting out more.
  • Keep a stiff upper lip. (I imagine that "keeping a stiff upper lip" is a person's attempt to quiet the "trembling lower lip.")

Frozen grief can best be described as grief on hold, partial grief, suppressed grief, complicated mourning, survivor guilt, and unfinished business. Sometimes, absence makes the heart grow frozen.

Why Do Emotional Eaters Freeze Grief?

Emotional eaters, obviously, are not the only people to freeze grief. But emotional eaters are prone to derail, detour, and divert difficult feelings through food. And grief is the most difficult of feelings!

Emotional eaters believe if they open their hearts to feel their pain, it will never end. "If I ever start to cry, I will never be able to stop," Yvette, an anorexic woman, declared. Simon, a compulsive overeater, stated, "My Dad has been dead two months already. I should be over it already and shouldn't really feel sad anymore."

Yvette and Simon's beliefs about grief reveal common traits of people with eating disorders: impatience with themselves, the conviction that strong feelings are scary and should be avoided, black or white thinking, and critical and perfectionist commandments to the self. Emotional eaters prefer a "quick fix" rather than tolerating the process of digesting either food or feelings. No wonder they turn to the numbing and anesthetizing substance of food in an attempt to cover up their sorrow and hurt and to "just get over it."

But grief is painful, it is supposed to be! Grieving is the process of untangling the loss of emotional connections to people or experiences that have great meaning to us. And that hurts.1

When someone dies, our mourning freezes if we narrowly view the person as either all good or all bad. This is especially true for eating disorder sufferers who tend to see the world in black and white. (I lost two pounds = I'm good. I gained two pounds = I'm bad.) They are often likely to see their dead loved one as either good or bad, a saint or a sinner. When we cannot accept that most relationships are a mixture of the good with the bad, we get stuck and derailed in the process of mourning. Grief freezes as we commit to viewing this person from just one perspective, without nuances.

Sergio, a classmate, invited me to his house for lunch many years ago. I knew he lived with his brother and that their mother had died seven years before. I was astonished to see that his mother's bedroom appeared untouched from the day she died. In the center of her bed was her nightgown and an old-fashioned black patent leather pocketbook. It lay open, as if waiting for the mother to pack up her powder puff and go out shopping. The brothers had also taken to propagating rubber plants, scores of them throughout the house, in every corner and window. It felt like a shrine of sorts to their dead mother, and it felt like years had frozen in this mausoleum, preserving their dead mother and the brothers from the passage of time.

Sergio described his mother as a saint who had never done any wrong. Yet Sergio's life was stultified—he had no social life, no friends, no girlfriend. Just his brother, his mother's pocketbook, and the rubber plants. He could not progress in his mourning because he feared facing the pain of saying goodbye forever or, perhaps, becoming aware of her less than perfect attributes. Instead, he clung to her perfection but at the price of stunting his growth and development.

An opposite example of frozen grief was the case of Marlena. In her mind, her dead mother was the sinner of the century. Unable to find a shred of daughterly love for her mother, Marlena refused to attend her mother's funeral. Although her mother had, indeed, been a difficult and critical person, she could also be loving, generous, and creative. She wasn't just one way. When Marlena finally installed her mother's gravestone, it was shocking in its bare bones message. It read: "Wife, Mother, Grandmother." She was unable to find in her heart one small adjective to favorably describe her mother. I think it may be the only headstone in the world without a warm or loving word in its description.

How would Marlena's refusal to honor her mother's life be considered frozen grief? When we commit to an ideal image of a mother, as Sergio did, or an all-diabolic view like Marlena's, we freeze ourselves from making peace in our hearts. Sergio, with a falsely exalted view of his mother, stayed stuck in the past. Marlena, filled with resentment and bitterness, never really buried her mother emotionally, but instead carries her around like a stone in her heart.

Hope Edelman, age 13 when her mother died, writes poignantly in Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss about the need to embrace ambivalent feelings in order to complete our mourning: "To mourn a mother fully we have to look back at the flip sides of imperfection and love. Without this, we remember our mothers as only half of what they were."2

I personally resonate with this ambivalent range of emotions in living with, loving, and finally letting go of my mother. My husband and I are going to visit my mother in the assisted living facility where she lived for the last two years of her life. My husband pleads with me while driving there, "Can you really try this time not to wind up screaming at your mother? Just this once."

"Absolutely," I answer, not understanding why he feels compelled to ask. Screaming at my mother is not something I believe I do. After all, I am the dutiful and loving daughter going to visit her mother. But 15 minutes after arriving, I am exceedingly irritated by my mother's commandments, her criticisms, and her controlling. I'm shrieking loudly at her. I cannot contain myself.

And yet, after I scream my head off, we come to some sort of peace. Then the visit starts winding down always in the same way. Mama is sitting in her recliner chair by the window of her room at the assisted living home. I get down on my knees and put my head in her lap. She runs her tiny gnarled and arthritic fingers through my hair, "My beautiful daughter," she murmurs, "my beautiful daughter."

"Mama, Mama," I whisper into her lap. I cannot believe she is really going to leave me. Forever.

Grieving thaws and mourning progresses when we can realistically perceive the good, the bad, and the indifferent of the person who has left us. Most people are a mingling of loving and flawed, wonderful and hurtful, kind and sometimes mean. Only when mourners are able to acknowledge the full range of aspects of the person they have lost can they integrate their memories in a way that will lead to genuine healing.

A line from Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey describes the hopeful grace of productive mourning, "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."3

Unfreezing Grief: Restarting the Process of Mourning
No pain is so devastating as the pain a person refuses to face . . .
Glenn Schiraldi4

When we are in pain, we naturally seek to protect ourselves from the hurt. And so, after a deep loss, people often sleep, drink, eat, shop, lose themselves on the computer, or engage in any number of activities to dull the ache and fill up the empty space within. But when eating disorders or other addictions become an ongoing pattern and a way to chronically avoid pain, then grief becomes frozen. The substances quell the pain from the outside in. Real and lasting relief comes from unraveling our emotions from the inside out.

However, we cannot selectively numb only painful memories without also tamping down happy memories as well. The energy used to suppress painful feelings also suppresses all feelings. So, when mourning is on hold, our life is on hold.

Healing grief does not mean you have forgotten the person or thing you lost. It means that the grief finds a place to live in your heart where you are enriched by loving memories and not tormented by anguished ones.

Sometimes grief never gets resolved. Hope Edelman speaks of the Resolution Hoax: "I wish I believed that mourning ends one day or that grief disappears for good. The word resolution dangles before us like a piñata filled with promise, telling us we only need to approach it from the right angle to obtain its prize. Some losses you truly don't get over. Grief is something that continues to get reworked."5

We are a group of 40 New Yorkers sitting on an outdoor terrace having lunch at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba. We are giddy with the freedom of having escaped New York's latest December snowstorm to revel in this warm, tropical paradise. We are enjoying our mojitos and our arroz con pollo as we listen to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Hannah, one of the women in our group, begins to speak, "Twenty years ago, my husband and I were driving our daughters to college in Boston. We pulled off the highway onto the grass because our car was overheating. We all got out of the car to wait for the car to cool down when a truck veered into us. My husband and my daughters were killed instantly."

This moment freezes in time as we all fall silent. We don't know what to say.

Over the years I have thought about the meaning and the timing of Hannah's declaration. It could mean:

• I have gone on with my life as proven by this exotic trip to Cuba. But in the midst of my pleasure, I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to my dead family. If only they could be here with me. May they rest in peace.

• Every enjoyable experience I have gets ruined by my intrusive memories of the family I have lost. I just have to blurt it out.

• I feel safe in this group of people and would like to share the most intimate wound in my heart.

• Why should you all be enjoying this day while I am still grieving? I want to puncture the happiness of this group. Since pleasure invariably gets spoiled for me, let me spoil it for others as well.

Maybe Hannah's grief contains all these elements. Her life does go on. Her trauma lives on as well.

Grieving is ambiguous. It concludes, it continues, it intrudes, it retreats, it pounces, it ebbs, it flares up, it settles down. Perhaps, like Hannah, we need to learn to contain within us the contradiction that life does go on, there are still pleasures to be enjoyed, and yet we are forever altered by having lost and suffered.

1 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the study of grief and mourning, describes in her book On Grief and Grieving how she became involved in this field. As a little girl, her family raised rabbits for food on their farm. Elizabeth had a favorite rabbit, Blackie, who her father eventually insisted be taken to the butcher for slaughter. Elizabeth, aged seven, was the one to take Blackie. After the butcher slaughtered the bunny, he told Elizabeth, "Too bad you didn't wait a couple of days. Blackie was pregnant and about ready to have babies." Elizabeth brought the dead rabbit home, its body still warm in the bag, and watched as her family ate the rabbit for dinner that night. Her heart was broken. "That night at dinner when my family ate Blackie, in my eyes they were cannibals. But I would not cry for this bunny or anyone else for almost forty years." Dr. Kübler-Ross later considered this event pivotal in her future interest in grief and mourning. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (Scribner, 2005), 212.

This story is of particular interest to me, since I have heard many traumatic stories from eating disorder patients over the years about their intense grieving for the pets they deeply loved:

"Our cat had kittens and my mother flushed them down the toilet." "My stepfather furiously kicked my dog Molasses until she bled. She died." "My parakeet flew away when I was a little girl, and no one helped me look for him. I searched the neighborhood all by myself. I was so lonely."

In French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating I recount a story from a patient named Jenny that reveals the deep connection we can feel with animals:

Jenny's father had died from a drug overdose when she was five. "When I was ten," she said, "I had an experience that was unbearable to me. My mother had just come out of a drug rehabilitation program. She and I found a baby robin on the sidewalk with a broken wing and we brought it inside to nurse it back to health. My mother put the bird on the stove and turned the heat on low to warm him up, but when I came home from school, the bird was lying dead on the stove. She had forgotten to turn the heat off. I felt destroyed, and no one could understand the depth of my reaction. People said 'But, Jenny, it was just a bird.'

"When I came to the eating support group 30 years later and began telling my story and my struggles with overeating, those memories of the bird came back. It occurred to me that I had felt like this little bird—that despite all my mother's good intentions, she was unable to really care for anyone, herself included. These memories of the bird made me experience for the first time the shock and fear I had felt about my father's death. The little robin had seemed so tender and helpless. That bird was like my tender self that had to go underground with food because I could not trust anyone to take good care of me." Mary Anne Cohen, French Toast for Breakfast (New Forge Press, 2015).

2 Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters. (Da Capo Press, 2006), 19.

3 Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927.

4 Glenn Schiraldi, Ph.D., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook (McGraw Hill, 2009), 193.

5 Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters.

In Part 3 will discuss The Process of Thawing Grief and Grieving the Loss of an Eating Disorder.

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: