What is grief bacon?
The term is a direct translation of the German word kummerspeck. It refers to the overeating people do to cope with the trauma of grief.
We know that dealing with the death of a significant other frequently involves appetite changes. Overeating, stress eating, and binge eating are on one side of the equation — not eating, dramatically reducing consumption, or purging after eating are on the other.
Grief eating is not done to satisfy hunger, but rather to assuage an emotional need. Eating to kill the pain of loss: a temporary feel-good remedy to escape a desperate situation.
Sugars and fatty foods are particularly effective for a quick fix. They release opioids in our brains which produce soothing effects.
There is also an aspect of control involved in grief eating. The very fact that someone can pick and choose what they eat restores a little control when events are spinning.
Mary Anne Cohen, Director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders, said: “Emotional eaters believe if they open their hearts to feel their pain, it will never end…the more you run away from intense emotions, the more your eating problems run after you.”
It’s only recently we have come to understand the biology of grief, how the body as a whole absorbs a devastating loss. Changes in appetite are just the tip of a potentially lethal iceberg: hypertension, acute health care crises, vascular disease, cancer, and even death itself can be linked to the process.
Mary Francis O’Connor, PhD, told The New York Times: “Humans are pre-disposed to form loving bonds and as soon as you do, your body is loaded and cocked for what happens when that person is gone. So, all systems that function well now must accommodate the person’s absence.”
In an interview conducted for an American Psychological Association podcast, O’Connor explained how love and grief are related. “When you fall in love with your spouse or your child, the brain encodes a bond,” she said. “Essentially, it creates a we, not just a you and me, but it creates a we of overlapping experience. Because of that…when a loved one is no longer there, we actually experience it as part of us is missing. At a very neural and coded level, our representation of we has a hole in it… we have a hole in our heart.”
That hole can produce immediate and serious physical consequences. Researchers have discovered the risk of having a heart attack the day after the loss of a loved one rises dramatically — and remains at high levels during the first week following the event.
Anna Whittaker, PhD, a noted scholar from the University of Birmingham, said that “grief has a way of getting into our bodies.” It has an impact far beyond the level of just emotion.
“During the difficult weeks and months after loss, we can suffer from reduced neutrophil function,” Whittaker said. “Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cells and as such are essential at combating infections and illness, so we become vulnerable when this happens.”
Vulnerable is the operative word in grief study. We all are vulnerable. Very few of us avoid bereavement. As Helen Keller succinctly put it, “We belong to the largest company in all the world — the company of those who have known suffering.”
The question is how we handle it emotionally, how we manage to avoid or at least reduce the somatic tumult that accompanies the death of a loved one.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in death studies, said we grieve forever. We never “get over” the loss: we learn to live with it. Eventually, we become whole, but we are never really the same.
Psychologists believe grief is an individual matter, everyone experiences the suffering in their own way. Although there is no blueprint for ameliorating the situation, the professionals at Harvard Medical School suggest the following: maintain a healthy diet (don’t eat the grief bacon – instead fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and plenty of water); pay attention to your sleep patterns, supplement with naps if necessary; take daily walks, no matter how blue you may feel; faithfully stay on your medication regimen; reach out to your social circle; join a grief group; avoid risky self-destructive behavior such as kicking up the alcohol intake; practice yoga and/or meditation.
If mourning problems persist, seek appropriate treatment.