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Grief, Emotional Eating & Father's Day

Updated: Jul 15


My dad died suddenly when I was 22 years old. My entire world turned upside down, and I was faced with new life transitions and navigating life without my dad. My own personal grief journey is both messy and complicated. There were several things that helped me through it such as:  therapy, support from friends and family, acknowledging my feelings and letting myself be sad, and emotional eating. Now, I know what you may be thinking – “Isn’t emotional eating a bad thing?” No, it’s not, and let me explain.

Emotional Eating often gets a bad rap or is labeled as a “maladaptive” coping skill. I’ve seen countless books and articles with a title in some form or another of “End Emotional Eating” Clients often walk into my office seeking help to stop their emotional eating. The reality is that while emotional eating can certainly create stress in your life, I don’t believe that it’s inherently a bad thing. In fact, I firmly believe that emotional eating is healthy, normal, and a big part of our culture.

We all eat in response to emotions, and there are many traditions that involve both food and eating. Food is almost always part of joy and celebration! We eat cake to celebrate birthdays and weddings. We go out to eat or eat special foods to celebrate graduations, promotions, accomplishments, and various life events. We eat popcorn at the movie theater to have a way to release tension while watching a movie that keeps us on the edge of our seat. We eat ice cream for comfort after a break-up. We bring casseroles and comfort food to grieving family members and friends after a funeral. There are so many ways we emotionally eat, and I think it’s amazing how food can be both a source of nourishment and a source of emotional comfort.

My dad loved fried zucchini, so much so that he had an email address that was something similar to: (ridiculous, right?).  As I’ve gotten older, I have also claimed zucchini as one of my favorite vegetables. Any time I eat fried zucchini, it makes me think of my dad, and I feel nostalgia for the times when we would go out to eat and he would inevitably order it for the table. It makes me smile and laugh to remember how much he loved this random food, and I love that I have these memories with him. After he died, I made sure that we served fried zucchini at his celebration of life as a way to honor him and for the people who loved him (myself included!) to feel connected to him.

Two of my dad’s other favorite foods were chocolate peanut butter ice cream and soft pretzels. When I was younger, he moved across the country. Any time I would visit, I would bring bags and bags of Philadelphia soft pretzels for him so he could stock up and freeze them since they “just weren’t the same” in that part of the country. His freezer was mostly soft pretzels and ice cream, and I loved how important his snacks were to him. I’ve found that ice cream and pretzels have been a crucial part of my grieving process and coping with overwhelming emotions.

When my dad first died, I ate a lot of ice cream. This was, in part, due to the connection it held to him, but it was also a way to soothe and comfort myself. The sweetness and coldness of ice cream was calming, and it helped when I was feeling overwhelming grief. Ice cream was something consistent that I could rely on, and I am so grateful that I had it as a coping skill. I think it’s really easy to demonize or pathologize emotional eating, but when we step back and look at all the ways it helps us to survive and get through challenging experiences, we can view it through a much gentler lens. As the Center for Body Trust often says, “All coping is rooted in wisdom.” Using food as a way to cope with different emotions is incredibly adaptive and can be a great resource for coping with grief. It’s okay to use food to cope, especially if no other coping skill is available to you.  

Father’s Day is quickly approaching, and I know that it will be a hard day for me and anyone else who is missing their dad. Father’s Day is tough when your dad isn’t around. You are bombarded with photos on social media of people celebrating and honoring their dad, and there’s a big reminder on the calendar that your dad isn’t here to celebrate. Some years, the holiday feels like a big punch in the gut. For me, I plan to be gentle with myself and honor whatever emotions might surface on that day. I often find journaling an effective way to cope, but I know that I am also going to be eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream, soft pretzels, and see if I can find some fried zucchini.

Grieving the death of a parent, sibling, or loved one is challenging any time of year, and this pain is often amplified during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and anniversaries of the person’s death. There are many different ways to cope with these days, and food can be part of your plan. If you are grieving the death of a loved one or the absence of a family member for any other reason, this is your permission slip to use food to cope. It’s okay to eat in response to emotions that come up whether that’s grief, anger, regret, relief, sadness, overwhelm, happiness, or a combination of emotions. It’s okay to eat the favorite foods of the person in your life who has died as a way to remember, feel connected to, honor, or celebrate them. Your body is wise, and if food is calling to you as a way to cope with grief, it’s okay to use it.

Kait Vanderlaan is an eating disorder therapist near me in Newtown, PA and is a certified intuitive eating specialst

Eating Disorder and Grief Therapist

Beyond Therapy & Nutrition Center

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1 Comment

Jun 07

Kait, thank you for such a gentle, sensitive post. I remember the day after my father died (still sometimes cannot believe those words) my entire family went to his favorite restaurant and ordered all his favorites! And I mean All! There was hardly room at the table for all the food we ordered. That meal for us was step one of the grieving process!

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