(originally published here after my mother’s death nine years ago today)
I’ve heard it said that some people experience a loss of appetite during stressful times like a death in the family. These people are not my relatives. Indeed, in our Ukrainian family tradition, we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re upset, and we eat during all possible emotions in between.
Every family gathering surrounding my mother’s death in 2012 was no exception.
For example, the delicious lunch following her funeral service was a true labour of love prepared by the women of my mother’s church, just as the women of churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and neighbourhoods around the world have been doing for mourners since time began. . .
U.K. food writer Grace Dent recently wrote a brilliant piece in The Guardian on this notion of eating and grief:
“As a child, I learned that, although funerals were to be dreaded and the church part was weird and jarring, the buffet afterwards would taste like delicious, carefully restored semi-sanity.”
Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. Her beautiful Culinate essay called Brisket in Bereavement helps to explains why women gather to cook after a death in our community:
“In grief, your carefully constructed life crashes and falls away, leaving you exposed, raw, helpless as a newborn. The bits of you that ought to be open are obstructed. The pain of loss dulls your senses, creates a force field around your body, makes you impervious to the world around you and especially impervious to its pleasures. You shut down.
“Maybe that’s why, in the wake of death, feeding those who mourn is part of our human hard wiring. It’s not a matter of feeding hunger. It’s about tempting and coaxing and calling the grieving back into the world. To eat is to engage, to strengthen, to unwrap from that first layer of sorrow’s embrace and partake of the life force.”
But bereavement is no time for exotic recipes or Food Network challenges, Ellen reminds us. It is a time for the familiar, for the traditional, for what is easy to prepare and easy to digest.
For our family, that meant homemade potato-and-cheddar-stuffed perogies (varenyky) with buttery sautéed onions and bacon, topped with mountains of sour cream. Yes, real sour cream (not that low-fat stuff I’ve been buying ever since I survived a heart attack – the kind my mother would have sneered at).
It also meant lots of wine and chocolate and my sister-in-law Donna’s slow-roasted pork ribs. I know that my mother would have been so pleased to see her five children, 11 grandchildren and oh-so-many extended family members talking, laughing, sharing stories and most importantly, enjoying comfort food together on the evening of her funeral. As we had acknowledged in her obituary:
“Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of Mom’s famous home-baked Chelsea buns and an apple pie or two.”
For Ellen Kanner’s family, a death meant cooking a brisket. Her own mother cooked for bereaved family members, she explained, to “fend off grief, to show Death who’s boss.”
After I flew home to the West Coast on the weekend following my mother’s funeral, feeling like I’d been hit by a very large bus, I experienced surprising and relentless carb cravings all week long. I wanted (needed) only hot cross buns, Island Farms coffee truffle ice cream, and mashed potatoes. With butter.
No carrots. No salad. No interest whatsoever in eating anything even remotely heart-healthy. As California dietitian Evelyn Tribole explains in her book, Healthy Homestyle Cooking:
“You don’t want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you’d kill for a piece of bread.”
Author and scientist Dr. Judith Wurtman agrees with Evelyn. She and her husband, MIT professor Dr. Richard J. Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to mood and depression. She explains:
“Carb craving is part of daily life. It’s a real neurochemical phenomenon.“
In the Wurtmans’ landmark report about the link between carbs and depression in Scientific American (Carbohydrates and Depression, January 1989) they explained that carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin, decreases which are marked by a decline in mood and concentration.
And eating carbohydrates seems to help carb cravers feel better within about 20 minutes, according to the Wurtmans’ research. When we eat carbs, they explain, our bodies create more serotonin. Reaching for carbs may simply be an unconscious attempt to lift a depressed mood. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago also suggest that carb cravers with a depressed mood may be self-medicating.
While high carbohydrate meals raise serotonin, protein-rich meals tend to lower it. But all carbs are not created equal. The type of carbohydrate we crave seems to be based upon the food’s glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak after consumption. The higher-glycemic index carbs (like sugar) are said to have a greater effect on serotonin than lower-glycemic index carbs (like oatmeal porridge).
When coping with severe stress, a person needs increased energy to deal with the heavier demands placed on both the mind and body. Simple carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising these blood sugar levels. And traumatic precipitating factors – like grief, divorce, family or health crises – can set off a cascade of carb cravings.
The problem with a simple carb overload, however, is that it can set off a physiological chain reaction that wreaks havoc on the body. It taxes the adrenal glands, suppresses the immune system for hours after intake, and generally leaves a person feeling sluggish and off-kilter. And then there’s the sugar crash. . .
But fear not, carbophobics. Bereavement eating like this is likely just a temporary craving misfire set off by the grief process; within weeks of Mom’s funeral, I was eventually tossing heart-smart salads and grilling salmon once again.
As Dr. Marcelle Pick reminds us in her book Are You Tired & Wired?, bereaved people have good reason to feel temporarily depressed, distressed and grief-stricken about the loss of someone they care about. In other words, it is utterly NORMAL to feel very sad during sad times.
Here are some common life events Dr. Pick lists that are likely to cause us to develop short-term symptoms of what’s known as situational depression – and not necessarily a more serious psychiatric disorder:
- death of a loved one/friend/acquaintance
- health crises (like a cardiac event)
- financial woes
- losing a job/underemployment
- children leaving for college
- even positive transitions laden with deep meaning, such as new jobs/weddings/births
Yes, we could reach for the pill bottle to help us cope with these events. And in fact, some people who develop severe and debilitating depression certainly do benefit from specific meds to help them through this – but for mild to moderate situational depression called grief, here’s a thought:
We could go for a long walk outdoors with other grieving family members or friends, and then we could dig up one of our mother’s favourite recipes and whip up some nice comforting carbs together instead. I think for tonight, it might just be Mom’s creamy rice pudding with her hot maple sauce . . .
And as Ellen Kanner observes:
“Food shared in the midst of sorrow allows for a moment of respite, of grace. It reminds us that even when there is loss, there is love.”
© 2021 Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
Q: Do you have a favourite comfort-food carb?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I included more on coping with situational grief and/or depression in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).