When You Eat to Cope With Childhood Grief
No one told me how to grieve. And no one probably told you, either.
Our society doesn’t usually like to talk about emotions, especially those that are negative.
We often hear terms like, “get over it,” “in time you will be OK” and “the pain will lessen.”
I was 9 when my dad died.
My mother told me, hastily, in front of what seemed like an audience of 75 people who had already come to our home and learned of my father’s passing. I was the last to know, but I wasn’t.
The previous night, I had woken up and ran downstairs to demand from the family that I was staying with my father at the hospital. Something was wrong and he needed to hear from me. I thought it was weird that the whole family was awake and gathered around the kitchen table. But I was given a hug, told I had a bad dream and sent back to bed.
I didn’t know it until a few weeks later, but they had just learned of his passing moments before I ran down the stairs.
Instead of asking questions, crying or talking about what my new reality meant, I went to my room and stared at my clown wallpaper (I still get the creeps when looking at clowns) and then I ate. I stared some more at that god-awful wallpaper and ate some more. Repeat.
I was 12 when my mom died.
My sister and I were living in our home by ourselves. Every morning after I made breakfast, I would call my mother to tell her I was on my way to school. That morning, the phone rang and rang and rang. Once again, I knew something was wrong.
Third period came and the principal came and got me. Momentarily forgetting the icky feeling about my mom, I thought I was in trouble for skipping school the day before. The principal said not one word to me as we walked to his office. I can still hear the squeak of his footsteps now.
I turned the corner and saw my aunt, my sister and, to be honest, I don’t remember who else. No one had to say anything. I fell to the ground and screamed. I had no idea what I was feeling.
When we got back to my house, I went to my room, stared at my now mint green walls (we had moved) and ate. Repeat.
This was how I dealt with grief. No one stopped me. I do not believe I ever heard the word grief until my adult life.
I continued to cope with trauma, confrontation and loss this way for most of my life: numb out and eat. While I now live a healthy lifestyle and no longer use food as a coping mechanism to numb out in response to deep emotion, I never quite grasped the maturity to handle my abandonment issues until about eight years ago. It was the year I almost took my own life because I felt too much. I share this with you for a few reasons.
A friend recently posted on her social media how society has grief all wrong, what grief has been like for her and how it is not at all going away.
I agreed and felt inspired to write this. So to my friend who posted that, thank you.
Grief is a delicate, wide topic, and seeps into all sorts of loss and infinite emotions. In researching for this post, I found two relatable definitions that felt most akin to my own experience with grief:
- Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.
- Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.
In other words, grief is one of the hardest and strongest emotions we will experience in our lives. It is constant because change is constant. We lose someone or something and find ourselves immediately catapulted into a new, unwanted reality. A reality we have no option but to accept. While grief hurts like hell, it can also be your gateway to healing. At some point in your life, humans, you will most likely experience grief.
The emotion of grief is not limited to death.
Think about your last big job promotion, you got a big raise and lots of new responsibility. Did you also feel a sense of grief or loss for that shift in responsibility and day-to-day normalcy that this change brought about?
Think about the last big personal or spiritual growth experience you had. When you discovered a new awareness of yourself and ended a behavioral or thought pattern that was no longer serving you, did you feel a sense of mourning for it as you began to change your behaviors and actions in your new awareness?
Grief is irrevocably a part of your life experience, in anything you touch, that impacts you.
When I finally chose to mourn the loss of my parents, I was in my mid-30s. It happened while I was in California getting ready to drive the Pacific Coast Highway for a few weeks by myself. I was recently reflecting about an experience I had at a Mastin Kipp seminar where I met the friend whose post inspired me to write this. He coached me in front of 300 people about what I thought my relationship issues were. Out of nowhere he said, “Did you ever mourn your parents death?” I almost threw the mic at him. I paid a thousand bucks for this, I thought. On my way home, reflecting on what went down, I realized I had been lost on Mulholland Drive for about an hour, completely lost in thought, so I pulled over to center myself and it hit me.
He was right.
I never did.
Decades of grief ensued. I sat in that car for hours finally letting it seep into my heart that my parents were gone, how awful it was to lose them at such a young age and the gravity of that loss. I have never cried like that in my life. I had no idea pain could feel like death.
You see, I had always filled the void my parents left behind. I thought I was being strong. I filled it with food, drugs, alcohol, men, unhealthy relationships, overworking, trophy-chasing — anything to not have to touch the pain that awaited me in the void. It was in that moment in the car that I felt the entirety of the void.
It was one of the hardest moments of my life, and one that liberated me forever.
Positive changes often don’t start out feeling that way.
In my opinion, nothing self-supporting or sabotaging will fill the void grief ultimately creates. But feeling the grief allows tremendous healing and a whole lot of love in.
As a woman who is now balanced in her emotions, allows her heart to be seen and her feelings to be felt, I no longer have to run from anything. I no longer have to numb out to the vast greatness life offers me through connection and experience because I am scared to be touched by grief. No matter what grief will be part of your story, try to choose not to limit that story because of any potential grief or loss. You can handle both.
For me, what I have come to accept and allow in my process is that the grief, the pain, the loss, will never lessen. While I say it never lessens, in the same breath I say it does not show up as often. When it does, I feel it, deeply. And you know what? It hurts. I am blessed to have a wonderful connection to my parents’ spirits now that I have mourned them. As a result, I found out that so much of their gifts and souls’ songs are in my own.
Dealing with grief can be tough for a lot of us. But I want to invite you to allow all of it. Allow yourself time to grieve and know grief might be an unexpected guest, but it needs your attention too. Treat it the same as you would any guest: with respect, comfort and care.
Please ask for extra support if you need it. Please know you are not alone. You are cared about. You are wanted. You are needed. Grief will always be there. It is not something to run from, my darling.
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