Oftentimes, when a person loses a loved one, friends and family respond with food. Copy Director Susan Roberts McWilliams found this something for which to be thankful.
“Early on, I just couldn’t stand eating alone. I realized that I needed to eat sometime and there needed to be people, and I didn’t have anybody to eat with.”
I was listening to my new friend, Rhonda Rutledge; we are both native Kentuckians now living in Alabama.
“And so I would just go to an unhealthy fast-food spot, and I’d just go and get a sandwich. The place in Jasper in the middle of the day where there were the most people was the Home Depot [laughs]. There was a lot of activity and a lot of people walking around. And I just would take my sandwich and go to the parking lot, park in the busiest area, and eat my sandwich, and pretend that I was eating with those people. And it, you know, seems weird to a lot of people, but it worked for me, for that period of time that I was in.”
“You just do what you have to do,” I said.
“I think everybody has to. Just however you can survive. And that worked for me.”
I loved that story from the first time I heard it, when Rhonda was serving as a volunteer for a spousal-loss support group I was attending. Just a few months before, I had lost my 43-year-old husband to a rare cancer. I had many things weighing on me at the time, but one thing that was a curiosity was that I could barely even go into the kitchen, much less cook or eat anything in there. It was just one part of the constellation of craziness I was feeling.
Rhonda, who had lost her young adult son about 11 years before and then her husband about 18 months after that, certainly understood. I loved her Home Depot story because I got it, and it immediately made me feel like if I was crazy, at least I was in good company.
I felt the same way about all the subsequent stories shared by other members of my group over the following weeks, from the people whose fractured eating habits seemed to leave them stuck on one particular food to the men who spoke of being hounded by the neighborhood “casserole queens”—women who would cajole or muscle their way into the homes of grieving men to assert food gifts onto them. (There seemed to be some gender bias inherent in that phenomenon.) None of us had any answers, but we were all in the same boat.
Or, as Rhonda said to me more than once, “You know, Susan, grief is really just the pits.”
When Mark and I fell in love, we did so where many people do—over dinner. We met through a group of mutual friends who went out to eat at least once a week. It didn’t take long to figure out that this handsome young architect was quite interested in food. We both enjoyed good food, and we went out to eat a lot in those early days, first with the group, and then just the two of us.
Mark particularly enjoyed the scientific hows and whys of cooking—that was often the hook that got him interested. But he also had a great appreciation for the art of food preparation. One time when we went out for sushi with the group, Mark explained to me that he thought food and architecture were similar.
“Food and shelter are both necessities,” he said. “We all need both food and shelter. But from that necessity, you can develop something that is beautiful, something that gives you great enjoyment and that enriches your life.” When the server brought our beautiful sushi rolls, Mark gestured toward his and said, “See? Architectural.” I was tickled to have a little insight into his philosophy.
We had many life-enriching dinners out in the early days, and as our relationship got more serious, we started cooking together more at home. Mark was an adventurous eater and pretty discriminating—much more so than I—and we always ate well. That’s not to say we spent a lot of money; we were often just as happy at some little hole-in-the-wall. We reveled in our Southern roots at barbecue joints and funky bars that served craft beers alongside items topped with hot pimiento cheese. But we also enjoyed all kinds of foods, such as warm, comforting Vietnamese noodle dishes and bright, herby Peruvian finds from restaurants just a stone’s throw from our home. We were regulars at our local Greek and Lebanese food festivals—two much-loved Birmingham institutions. But most of all, we spent time at DeVinci’s, a local pizza and pasta place where Mark warmed a bar stool very regularly before we got married (and still fairly regularly afterward). There we would get supremely indulgent pasta dishes, most smothered in cheese, and chat with the other regulars and staff, who treated us like family.
When Mark was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a form of cancer that develops in the eye, his ophthalmologist in Birmingham suggested he seek treatment in Philadelphia. Wills Eye Hospital and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, both in Philly, are world leaders in treating this rare cancer. When Mark first started making the trips there with his parents and his sister, I was impressed by his family’s dedication to making them as enjoyable as possible. They would take sightseeing tours and visit wonderful restaurants, and generally make these journeys seem as much as possible like family vacations. By the time I started tagging along, they were well versed in many of the best restaurants in Center City.
I suppose that’s where the balancing act between enjoyment and necessity began. We would go out for convivial meals at places such as [Jose] Garces Trading Company for European bistro fare one night, and then trade that for sad, gray hospital mystery meat and crackers from the vending machine for the next couple of days. But in just a few days or so, Mark would bounce back, and we would be out eating something fabulous, like those beautiful sushi rolls, in celebratory fashion.
We would return home from these treatment trips and continue building our life together. Sometimes Mark would watch me cook, all the while giving me pointers and a scientific explanation of how whatever technique I was using was affecting the food. (I did not always appreciate this.) But he seemed to enjoy it so much, and I was happy that he’d rather be in the kitchen with me than watching TV.
On the Valentine’s Day before we got married, we made ravioli together. You had better believe this was Mark’s idea. I never would’ve taken on such a thing myself. But it was fun, as we fumbled with the dough and apple-hazelnut filling, and we decided it was as good a form of premarital counseling as any. The results were delicious.
Looking back, I believe we were blessed to be able to maintain such a state of happiness for most of the five years after Mark’s initial diagnosis. For a long time, he was virtually symptom-free, except for some vision distortion and eventual blindness in his right eye. But eventually, the signs of his advancing illness began to creep in. Mark tried several experimental treatments, and one made him very sick. He developed terrible problems with acid reflux—really, problems all along his GI tract. Sadly for such a food lover, this treatment also affected his sense of taste so that very little tasted good to him. A number of us racked our brains to come up with meals that had a sweet flavor profile and therefore might appeal to him, and there were some moderate hits along the way, such as a pork stew I tried that was sweetened with oranges. Unfortunately, after a few months, this treatment was suspended for the worst possible reasons: My already-slim husband had lost almost 30 pounds, indicating a greatly affected quality of life, and it was all for naught, as medical imaging showed that the cancer had spread far more than we had realized.
After he stopped that treatment, Mark seemed to recover pretty well. We continued to enjoy our time together with friends and family, eating as well as always. But as 2013 progressed, Mark became noticeably sicker. He eventually had to have his right eye removed, which was a huge psychological blow. I told him his eye patch was sexy, but I knew it was also a constant reminder of the cancer.
By December, Mark was clearly more fatigued, and his appetite was waning. On New Year’s Day of 2014, I called an ambulance for him because he had gotten very sick at home and was obviously in a lot of pain. At the hospital, we learned he was having trouble because of cancer in his intestines. He started to lose weight at an alarming rate, and I knew he was in serious trouble. In his last few weeks, I could barely get him to eat anything. I would make milk shakes for him and add anything I thought might be beneficial—pasteurized eggs, yogurt, anything with protein. I tried to nurture him the best way I knew how—through food—but the cancer would not allow it. Up until the end, Mark was always gracious about my efforts to feed him, thanking me for everything I tried. But he had more and more trouble getting food and even liquids down, and then swallowing became a problem. Finally, on March 31, 2014, his soul escaped a body that had betrayed him.
It is hard to describe those first few weeks after Mark’s death; in some ways, it is even hard to remember them. Although he died of a cancer we had known about for some time, his death was still such a shock. Everyone grieves differently—if I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It turns out I wasn’t the type to cry much in the beginning. I felt so numb. I felt like I was underwater, with everything moving very slowly and at a distance, and that I couldn’t understand things that were being said to me. I was surprised by how out of it I felt. I expected to be very, very sad, but I hadn’t expected to feel so drugged.
I knew I had to do certain things: I had to go to the funeral. I had to dress appropriately and stand up and talk to people. I will always be thankful for the friends and family around me who made this happen, because I’m not exactly sure how everything got done. I know it took a village.
The funeral was horrible, of course, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over so that I could do what I really wanted to do: lie on the sofa. As out-of-town family and friends returned to their homes, I pursued my new hobby with a vengeance. Soon it became lying on the sofa and watching Law & Order. I have never watched so much Law & Order in my life. I really do love the show, but that had less to do with it than the fact that you can find at least one version of it on some channel at any time, day or night. It became a constant in my life. There was absolutely nothing else in the world I wanted to do; in fact, nothing else seemed worth doing. I had tried so hard to save Mark from his cancer. I had tried, and I had failed. I didn’t want to try to do anything else, ever again.
In those early days, I started to receive a number of wonderful food gifts from friends and neighbors. I knew that it was customary to bring food to someone who had lost a loved one, but until I lost Mark, I didn’t fully understand why. I mean, sure, it seemed like a nice thing to do. But it wasn’t until this phase of my life that feeding myself decent, adult food on a regular basis felt so far beyond my grasp.
A group of friends, one of whom is a baker at our local Whole Foods, brought us a large platter of breakfast pastries to set out at Mark’s funeral. Everyone loved them. I received many gifts of food from my coworkers here at Cooking Light. Deb Wise, the Baking Goddess herself, baked some of the best cookies I have ever tasted just for me. I received wonderful things—in particular, a number of muffins and quick breads, which were great for sharing with out-of-town guests. Production Editor Hazel Eddins gave me a big fruit salad. This was a spectacular gift, as it was probably the only fruit or vegetable I had eaten in weeks.
A little later, during my Law & Order phase, one of my neighbors, someone I had met just briefly, came over to express his condolences, and he brought me a pint of chicken salad from a local restaurant and a package of Hawaiian rolls. I felt like I had won the lottery. I probably ate those for every meal straight through right after I got them. I loved them, and they helped to round out what had been a steady diet of Ritz crackers and fast-food milk shakes.
Later, when I was back at work, I discussed this phenomenon of giving food to the bereaved with Executive Food Editor Ann Pittman, and I think she summed it up nicely. She said, “Friends know they can’t help you through the pain of your loss, but providing food is one tangible, concrete thing they can do. There is something so basic and primal about cooking for someone and nourishing her in a time of need.” Or, as Alan Wolfelt, PhD, author and grief counselor, wrote in his book Healing Your Grieving Body, “Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate.”
As hard as it was to return to work, I thought it would be good to get back into a routine. And it was. It’s just that I would get up, get dressed, go to work, and come home, and I still felt like I could barely do anything else. This is when I settled into a habit that I had dabbled in earlier: I started hitting a fast-food or takeout joint most every night on my way home from work. Even in my younger years, when I was right out of college and not terribly interested in the idea of domestic bliss, I never lived quite like this—eating so much takeout. I simply could not abide the idea of going home and cooking a meal.
For one thing, I wasn’t up for taking on any activities that I didn’t absolutely have to do. A friend of mine, Jade Davis, who became a widow at the age of 32 and who now volunteers with her local non-medical hospice group in Washington, D.C., once described her view of grief to me like this: “A person who is grieving is like a computer that has a huge program running in the background, eating up memory and draining resources away from the computer’s performance.” That’s exactly how I felt during those early days, how I continued to feel through the following months and even today, although I am much improved. That sense of loss is never far from my mind, draining away my resources.
But there was something particularly troubling about food. I barely went into the kitchen for about six months after Mark died. I still got hungry. I knew that I should be cooking something reasonably healthful to keep myself well during this time of great stress. And I did not have much trouble eating—something that can be a problem for a lot of people. The truth was, I didn’t care what I was eating. I was just shoveling something into my body because I knew I had to. There was no joy in the experience.
To go into the kitchen and cook a really good meal, the kind of meal that would make the whole house smell wonderful, that’s the kind of scenario that takes place in a happy home—a home full of joy and life, and full of people, for that matter. The very idea of going into the kitchen and trying to replicate that experience only for myself, in a house full of loss, where my only reason for celebration was now gone, made me feel like such a fraud. I just couldn’t bear it.
A few months after Mark died, I did one of the first items on a long list of things I never expected to do: I joined a spousal-loss support group. I have never been a social joiner type, but after I became a widow at the age of 43, I suddenly wanted to spend some time among other people who were going through the same thing.
This is probably the best decision I have made on what we now commonly call our “grief journey.” I found it to be incredibly helpful to be around people in similar situations, in a setting that was well facilitated by grief counselors and volunteers. All of the volunteers, such as Rhonda, were people who had lost a spouse and been through this program, generally several years before.
In the beginning, it was difficult to go in, introduce ourselves, and share our stories for the first time. And some of those early meetings were painful for me because I felt like I was getting by just going through the motions of life; as such, I didn’t always want to take the time to stop and confront my feelings. However, somewhere, deep down, I felt like that would be a better route than denial. So I stuck with it, and I am so glad I did. I don’t think I could exaggerate how helpful and healing it was to meet with these peers and share our stories of loss and how we were coping with it (or not), encouraging each other along the way.
I was surprised to find out that issues with food were so common. I had an inkling, but I didn’t realize how widespread the problem was. Our meetings always included dinner, which was great. We would sit down to eat together and talk about how this was the best meal we’d had all week.
This is where many of the food stories would come out. One woman confessed that she was pretty much living on cheese and crackers at home. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one hitting the fast-food drive-through pretty hard. A number of people talked about the difficulties of sitting down at the dining room table and eating alone; a lot of eating was done while standing at the kitchen counter, sometimes in the dark, sometimes while still wearing a coat after coming in from outside. They, like me, saw eating as a necessity, but just something to get through.
In this group, we read some materials from Wolfelt, and a few months later, I was able to talk with him at a local speaking engagement. “In my clinical experience, around 80% of people have appetite loss, 10% have appetite gain, and 10% have no change in appetite,” he said. About the people who experience appetite loss, he said, “Focus is outside the self, and every thought early on in the journey is of the person who died. Eating is simply not a priority in the early phases of the loss experience.” He stresses the importance of keeping the mourner hydrated and fed as much as possible: “Mourning and getting support will often help create the return to a normal diet, but it is usually a much slower process than many are aware of. We must be patient and mourn.”
Occasionally, throughout the course of my grief, I have felt a little bit guilty about the fact that I have gained weight. Losing weight because of heartbreak seemed more virtuous to me than porking up because of relentless trips to the drive-through. I did not pose a direct question about this to Wolfelt, but he addressed my concerns anyway: “There is actually some good research that shows that when we as humans are under stress (and bereavement naturally results in stress), if we try to deny the stress we will often eat even when we are not actually hungry, and the result is weight gain. So mourn well, and care for your body as you do so.” I hadn’t thought of myself as trying to deny my stress, but once I did go back to work, I tried to stay busy, both at work and outside of it. Mindfulness and self-care in many areas, including eating, are now goals of mine.
The weekend of Halloween 2014, seven months after Mark died, my parents came to visit. They came for a couple of reasons. Halloween is a big deal in my neighborhood. I still live where I lived with Mark, and this area is full of children. Mark loved Halloween; he would decorate and have Harry Potter movies on in the background. (Children would walk right into the house to watch a little Harry Potter before their parents came in after them.) I was feeling a little sensitive about the holiday. Also, the Sunday after, my Methodist church would be having its annual All Saints’ service—a beautiful remembrance of those who had died the previous year. I had always loved this service but didn’t want to face this one alone.
My parents were driving hours to be with me, and I knew it would be best if we didn’t have to get out to look for food. I kept thinking, “Just pull up your big girl panties and make dinner.”
And so I did. I made something I knew would be easy and good—a beef stew in the slow cooker. After work, I came home to a really good meal—the kind that made the whole house smell wonderful. And my parents were there, and throughout the evening, all of the neighborhood kids came by, excitedly begging for candy, and it was a very festive scene. I missed Mark terribly, as he would’ve enjoyed the madhouse. But for once, our little house had life in it again, and it did not feel like a fraud.
Not long ago, Mark’s sister, Lisa, sent me a photo of a postcard Mark had sent to her when she was in college at Auburn University and he was in Europe with his architecture program. It’s so Mark. The picture on the postcard is of an owl sitting on a fence post. Part of his message to her was this: “It occurred to me that you are taking finals so a word to the wise. Take it easy, don’t get rattled, and remember time keeps ticking and soon it will be over. Nothing’s important enough to sacrifice health, and even wise old owls occasionally sit on fence posts.” I know he was speaking to Lisa during finals week, but I also somehow felt like he was trying to tell me that now. If Mark had left something with me to take care of after his passing, I would’ve taken care of it to the best of my ability. I now realize that the thing he would most want me to take care of is myself.
Last summer, Lisa and her husband, Brian, came to visit, and I met up with them and her parents at DeVinci’s. Lisa and Brian had their indulgent, cheesy pasta dishes, the parents-in-law and I shared our favorite pizza, and Mark’s dad ordered a craft beer that Mark would’ve appreciated. We talked about Mark, and we talked about things that were happening in the present, and the staff still treated us like family. It seemed a fitting tribute.
Mark was always gracious with me; he always thanked me for the things I did to try to take care of him, especially as his illness progressed. However, I never said nearly enough about how much he did for me. Mark gave me a love I had never known. He taught me to enjoy life, to celebrate all accomplishments, big and small, and that a good meal and a nice bottle of wine were a fitting way to honor our engagement, a promotion at work, or even just a pretty day. I think Mark would be happy for me to try to continue on in this way and live my life to the fullest, even in his absence. I’m not there yet, but with the help of my friends and family, I believe I will get there.