Symptoms of grief are varied, depending on the person grieving, but they can have significant effects on a person’s physical health. According to Harvard Medical School, grief is as much physical as it is emotional, and one of the most common symptoms is disruption to eating patterns.
During the early stages of grief, it is common for the bereaved to forget to eat. Even when they do remember, they may not be able to face the thought of eating or cooking a big meal. When arranging the funeral, managing the estate and coping with grief, cooking a nutritious, healthy meal is often the last thing on that person’s mind.
Skipping meals or eating fast food and ready meals every day can become a habit and continue for a long time after a loss. This can begin to have an impact on physical health, leaving the bereaved feeling sluggish and tired – making it even harder to cope with the overwhelming feelings of grief they will be experiencing.
Offering to cook or delivering homemade food can be a practical way of helping someone through grief. Here are 10 tips if you want to lend your cooking skills to a grieving friend or family member.
1. Offer your help (but don’t insist on it)
Although turning up with a homemade casserole can be a really touching gesture the first time, your grieving friend might find it difficult to tell you they don’t want your help if you keep giving them food they don’t really want. They’ll be emotionally exhausted and the thought of refusing your lovingly made meal might just be too much.
Try to read the signals and remember that they may be shy about asking for help – or refusing it. Don’t be offended if they seem to not want or need your help. Just let them know that you’re there if they ever want to talk, or help out in some other practical way.
2. Coordinate your efforts
If you know that your grieving friend has a lot of friends and family looking after them, you might want to think about getting in touch with their other supporters to coordinate. You can find out what other people have given them and what they might still need.
This way, your friend won’t end up with six lasagnes in their fridge, or run out of room in the freezer. You can all work together to make sure any needs they have, practical or emotional, are met.
3. Stock up the freezer
Fresh food is great, but it isn’t just the immediate present that will be difficult for the bereaved. Having a well-stocked freezer can be a blessing on those unexpectedly bad days where the takeaway menu looks so much easier than getting in the kitchen.
Choose meals that can just be heated up in the oven with minimum preparation required – lasagne, casseroles, soup and chili are all great freezer foods.
4. Go shopping
It isn’t just food prep that feels impossible when you’re grieving. Braving the supermarket is a real drain on time, energy and emotions.
Ask for a shopping list, or if you’re close to them, ask if you can check their kitchen cupboards for what they’re running low on. Stock up on canned food that won’t perish as well as essentials like milk, eggs, bread, and any basic household products.
5. Don’t overdo the comfort foods...
It can be really tempting to feed grieving friends with all their favourite comfort foods. Anything with lots of carbs and cheese usually fits the bill. This can be very much appreciated and you should by no means ignore those comforting recipes, however eating like this for an extended period of time may not be ideal.
Grief can make people overeat as they try to find any small pleasure they can during an otherwise joyless time. The Germans even have a word for this kind of comfort eating – ‘Kummerspeck’, literally meaning ‘grief bacon’.
This means it can be helpful to vary the menu with a less fattening alternative occasionally. Soups and vegetable-based casseroles can be just as comforting as pot pies and pasta, but with half the fat and calories. Grieving people also can be given a lot of home baked cakes and cookies, so consider giving them something less sugary instead.
6. ...but don’t overdo the low-fat salads either
Eating well is very different from eating to lose weight. The latest calorie control diets might recommend rice cakes and low-fat cottage cheese as a main meal, but that is not representative of what a person needs in order to eat well during a stressful time.
A grieving family or friend will need hearty, wholesome meals with plenty of vegetables, but also a decent portion of carbohydrate, protein and healthy fat too. Things like fish pie, chicken stew or lentil curry should do the trick.
7. Don’t forget about breakfast
Cooking for grieving families or friends usually focuses on providing dinner, but breakfast, as they say, is the most important meal of the day.
Try to make it as convenient and time-saving for the bereaved as possible. The recent trend for frozen breakfast burritos makes for a great healthy breakfast, that can be taken straight from the freezer and heated within minutes in a microwave. You can include beans, egg and veg to pack it full of nutrients for an energy-boosting start to the day. A big jar of homemade granola or batch of bran muffins can also be a thoughtful gift.
8. Leave a note
Leaving a handwritten note on the food you bring can be helpful for a number of reasons. Firstly, make sure you label what everything is and when it should be eaten by. You might also want to make a note of what each meal contains, in case anyone in the family has a food allergy.
You can also use notes to offer other kinds of help and invite them to talk to you if they ever need to. It’s a good way of offering support without pressuring them for an immediate answer.
9. Don’t judge
Remember, you are not there to be a dietician or health critic. Even if you feel that your grieving friend is getting into bad eating habits, you should not pressure them to make major changes to their diet.
You can offer your help and wholesome food, but ultimately it’s up to them what they decide to eat. Grief is a confusing, overwhelming experience and you probably have very little idea of how they are really feeling. Don’t judge them for seeking comfort in cake or forgetting to eat breakfast. They’ve got bigger issues to deal with right now.
10. Invite them round for dinner
Providing food can be really helpful, but sometimes a person who is grieving needs company and an opportunity to get out of the house for a couple of hours. Don’t make it too formal – stick to a friendly, casual dinner with hearty food.
If they decline your offer, don’t take this as a sign to never ask again. While it may be too much for them right now, there may come a time when they are ready to socialise and your invitation will be more than welcome.
If you want to help a grieving friend, see our bereavement support section for more information on helping the bereaved through grief.