Psychotherapy and Training Collective of New York

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

Click HERE to read Part 2.

Click HERE to read Part 1.

  Frozen Grief and Emotional Eating:
  Part 3

By Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD

  The Process of Thawing Grief

Thawing grief involves telling the story of your loss to safe and empathic people you trust. Sorrow needs to speak. As Shakespeare wrote: "Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'er fraught heart, and bids it break."

Thawing grief includes:
· Recounting the story of what happened
· Describing the impact it had on you when it occurred
· Expressing the feelings of anger/guilt/self-blame/regrets you may have
· Imagine the effect this loss will have on your life as you move forward
· Consider the connection between your loss and your history of bingeing, purging, starving, drinking, taking drugs, or any other addictions
· Allow yourself to feel the physical impact of your story
· Remember and re-experience the good memories, if any, connected to this loss
· Acknowledge the pain and hurt of the bad memories
· Recognize whatever unfinished business is connected to this loss
· Accept the fact that your life does go on despite your loss and grief
· Make peace with the "new normal" that your loved one will always be missing
· Decide to get help if depression/anxiety/self-blame/or any addictions are ruling your life
· Integrate a ritual or create a memorial, to honor your loss
· Cultivate other secure relationships, such as a support group or therapy, which will encourage you to take good care of yourself without the crutch of emotional eating

Crying is our natural healing process of releasing emotions that well up. Tears are a gift from deep inside. "There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love," wrote Washington Irving.

As we recover from grief, we find inner signposts that may illustrate our progress. Glenn, a widower and in recovery from compulsive overeating, tells his story:

"My wife, Camille, and I always loved to go out to eat. We would go to this local restaurant in our neighborhood, Aubergine. That's French for eggplant. After Camille died, for a year and a half, I had this series of dreams of the two of us going to Aubergine for dinner. It was soothing and comforting as if she were still with me, at least in my dreams.

"Then two years after her death, my dream changed: We went back to Aubergine, but they had changed the name. The restaurant's new name was Au Revoir which is French for goodbye. Then I realized that Au Revoir also means 'til we meet again.' The dream felt like my wife was telling me to move on with my life, that we would see each other again, but now was the time for me to begin a new life without her. The dream made me sad, but I also found it amusing—Camille was sending me a message from heaven!"

As Judith Viorst writes, "So perhaps the only choice we have is to choose what to do with our dead: To die when they die. To live crippled. Or to forge, out of pain and memory, new adaptations. Through mourning we acknowledge that pain, feel that pain, live past it. Through mourning we let the dead go and take them in. Through mourning we come to accept the difficult changes that loss must bring—and then we begin to come to the end of mourning."1

  Grieving the Loss of an Eating Disorder

As emotional eaters begin to recover, they need to grieve the loss of their best friend and enemy (their "frenemy") of bingeing, purging, starving, and chronic dieting. People often experience grief when they recover from their eating problems because they lose a tried and true way of soothing themselves, a way of giving meaning and focus to their life, a well-worn way of coping with stress, and the magical belief that weight loss will solve all their problems, repair their self-esteem, and help them feel happier.

Grief includes the realization of how much wasted time, energy, money, and obsessing the eating disorder has consumed.

Eventually, through the process of healing, we need to part from our eating problems, honor the help they have provided, wave goodbye, and go our separate ways.

This farewell engenders its own grief as the question remains: "Who am I without my eating disorder?"

Rose Ann has struggled with binge eating disorder, anorexia, and laxative abuse. In her poem, written as she emerges from the bondage of her eating disorders, she portrays the transition from an eating disordered identity to recovering the vitality of living. She captures the confusion, the hope, the vision of how life could be, as well as an acknowledgement of what it has been like living under the tyranny of an eating disorder.

Who Am I Without My Eating Disorder?

Rose Ann F.
Who am I without my eating disorder?
I am the dirt on which you walk, Or am I the ground for which things grow?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the rose about to wilt, Or am I the bud who needs to bloom?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the sky that brings such darkness, Or am I the dawn that brings the light?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am damaging thunder that brings the storm, Or am I the rain that brings the rainbow?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the re burning destructively hot, Or am I the flame that wants to glow?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the mouth that craves to eat, Or am I the lips seeking a kiss so sweet?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the tears that carry sorrow, Or am I the tears that set you free?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the eyes that refuse to see, Or am I searching just for me?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the heart that anxiously skips a beat, Or am I the pulsing rhythm in my feet?
Who am I without my eating disorder? I am the life that waits for death, Or am I the child still unborn Who waits first breath To greet new dawn?

The more you run away from intense emotions, the more your eating problems run after you. Grief must be witnessed to be healed. Therapy can help to unfreeze grief. You learn that your pain is not the whole of who you are. Tears thaw grief. Shared pain is soothed pain.

  Food for Thought

To chronicle your own history of loss and grief, create a time line from birth to now. Include any rupture, disruption, change, loss, family death or turmoil, significant illness, accident, or violence that occurred to you.

Then, chronicle your time line history with weight and eating disorders.

1. Are there any parallels between these two time lines? Can you relate an upsurge of eating problems to the times of loss or grief?

Doreen made an abridged time line and described it to me: "I actually made a graph of all the losses and changes in my life, then I superimposed my eating disorder history on top of it. Here is what I learned:

• When I was five years old, I was a normal weight kid. Then my parents moved into a house of our own in the suburbs. The photos after that move showed me getting heavier and heavier. I imagine I felt bereft to leave my little friends behind; they were the very first friends I ever had. My mother may have been more socially isolated in the new house because she didn't drive, and my father had more financial responsibilities with the mortgage. I think the heightened anxiety level in my house began fueling my compulsive overeating.

• I had an abortion when I was 24. My guilt, confusion, and shame led to another upsurge of compulsive bingeing in which I gained 30 pounds.

• When I was 40, my older brother was diagnosed with leukemia. As he became more emaciated, I went through a period of anorexia. Part of me really enjoyed the self-control of starvation. Brad died two years later, and my anorexia continued until I went into treatment. Treatment helped me to eventually start eating again, even though a part of me really prefers being anorexic to being normal. Just a part of me, though."

2. If I open my heart to pain, what is my biggest fear?

3. What do I lose if I keep it locked up?

4. How does my emotional eating help keep my pain under wraps?

5. And, as Rose Ann's poem asks, "Who am I without my eating disorder?"


1 Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses, 264.

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: