Pretty much everyone you come across can reel off what’s known as the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What I’ve learned in the almost three years since my husband passed away suddenly is that the stages of grief can actually be defined by how and what you eat.
Stage 1: Eating nothing
There’s a funny irony in the immediate post-death phase: At the time when the grieving least feel like eating anything, your fridge is overflowing with food. This is particularly the case for those who observe the Jewish week of mourning known as the shiva. Heaven forbid you go to a mourner’s house without a plate of food! I remember we had the roast chicken phase, followed by the bagels phase, followed by the grapes phase and the quiche phase. It was as if there was some cosmic trail that people were following which advised everyone of the “food of the day” that would be of most comfort.
I didn’t really eat any of it. A couple of bananas and some protein balls were about all I could stomach in those first few days. Months later I was still finding food that had been lovingly wrapped up in my freezer. Who knew quiches freeze so well?
Stage 2: Eating anything
This is the stage when you realize that you are literally the only adult in the house, which means no one is watching. Chocolate at 8 a.m.? Why not! Eating a whole jar of peanut butter, with a spoon, in one sitting? Oh yeah, I did that a few times. It’s the food equivalent of, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Occasionally my kids would catch me out. “Mum, where are our Halloween lollies?” or, “How come there are no clean teaspoons in the drawer?” Luckily it’s pretty easy to lie to 6-year-olds. It was all working perfectly until I ended up needing to get seriously into running to counter the serious efforts I was putting into food consumption. Which was not a bad thing in itself, given the mental health boosting effects of exercise. So, really, this stage was a win-win.
Stage 3: Eating alone
One piece of fish. One steak. One carrot, zucchini, or potato. It’s the shopping basket of an old widow, and given I was 37 when my husband died, I couldn’t bear that label. No thanks. So instead I took the high road and made myself scrambled eggs every night. The perfect one pan, one plate meal. And eggs are protein, right? Sometimes I would add some spinach leaves, a mushroom, and some capsicum and I had all the colors going on. Occasionally I would go out on a limb with a poached egg or a sunny side up.
But basically, pretty much every night was scrambled eggs night. And I couldn’t have cared less.
Stage 4: Eating out
I remember the first time I went out with friends after my husband’s death. We were a group of five, and as I walked in and saw the table set with an uneven number of places I almost ran out of the restaurant. I held it together at the time, but going out with a group of couples is unquestionably still, weirdly, one of the most difficult things I do. There’s only one thing worse than a table set with an odd number of places: when it’s been set for an even number and then they have to take away the unfilled place in front of you.
Knowing that social isolation is the alternative to going out, I force myself to go to these dinners, but that empty chair at the end of a rectangular table for six has colored every restaurant experience since my husband’s death. The Chinese have got it right—round tables are kind of genius.
Stage 5: Eating with no regrets
Finally, there’s a point at which food becomes re-normalized. Sure, I have my days when that peanut butter jar gets a workout, but mostly the crazy ups and downs of my food journey have stabilized, much as my grief has. There has been one major change, though. In all parts of my life now, I try to be open to new things—in this case, to break out of the routine of the same foods, restaurants, and experiences that defined my life with my husband. Not to negate what we did together, but rather to be open to the wonder in new possibilities.
I’ve always been a very plain eater. The joke in my family is that I’m so pale because I grew up only eating white food. Certainly I had very black and white views on food. I like this. I loathe that. But like with everything in my life now, I’m trying to look at things from a second perspective, and in the process have learned that apparently I do actually like blueberries and red wine and blue cheese—all foods that for years I avoided like the plague!
It’s a broader lesson for me than just about food, of course. It’s a lesson in how I can retain the memories of the previous 15 years of my life with my husband, whilst being open to creating new memories. It’s also about pausing before I follow my natural instinct to immediately discount anything unfamiliar and really reflect on whether I am making decisions based on blindly following past behavior or being open to future possibility.
After 1,000 days on this food/grief journey, it’s clear to me that the way forward is to live without regrets and to try not to let fear of the unknown hold me back. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that no one ever died from trying blueberries.