When grief is your din­ner guest


When her hus­band, Bill, died six years ago this month, Michele Zawadzki squared her shoul­ders to the grief.

They had been to­gether for 47 years — since high school, when they were prom dates — so she knew that life with­out him would be try­ing. Not just hol­i­days, but even mun­dane mat­ters like tak­ing care of the car. When a pipe broke in her toi­let, spray­ing wa­ter all over, Zawadzki, 68, didn’t know what valve to turn off or whom to call. Mail for him kept com­ing.

What she didn’t ex­pect, though, was how dif­fi­cult it would be to turn on her stove. Or how hard it would be to go to a res­tau­rant with their friends and be the only one driv­ing home by her­self at the end of the night. Or how it would feel to walk su­per­mar­ket aisles, past the foods he loved.

In the check­out line, she’d watch the clerk scan pro­duce she knew would rot, and bread she knew would go stale; she was still shop­ping for two, but eat­ing for one. When her freezer filled with ex­cess food, she started throw­ing out meals — throw­ing out his por­tion, re­ally, be­cause he wasn’t there to eat it.

“There are trig­gers ev­ery­where with food,” Zawadzki said. “You get home, you’re still by your­self, and you’re used to cook­ing a cer­tain way. It’s de­bil­i­tat­ing.”

The con­nec­tion be­tween food and mourn­ing runs deep: In al­most ev­ery cul­ture or tra­di­tion, a com­mu­nity brings dishes to the sur­vivors in the weeks or months after a death. But for a spouse, ac­cus­tomed to shar­ing ev­ery meal with a part­ner, the griev­ing can go on long af­ter­ward, re­newed con­stantly by the rhythms of shop­ping, cook­ing and eat­ing.

“It’s al­most like the sixth stage of grief is cook­ing alone,” said Jill Co­hen, a grief coun­sel­lor in New York, re­fer­ring to the now-dis­puted the­ory of the five stages of grief, de­vel­oped by the psy­chi­a­trist Elis­a­beth Kubler-Ross.

Be­reave­ment coun­sel­lors said that only in the past decade have aca­demics and non-profit groups be­gun di­rectly ad­dress­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween griev­ing and food. At meals hosted by the Din­ner Party, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has ex­panded in more than 100 cities world­wide since its found­ing in 2014, peo­ple in their 20s or 30s who have lost some­one meet reg­u­larly to share. Co­hen said many of her pa­tients bring up eat­ing is­sues in ther­apy.

In the Chicago suburbs, a free sup­port group called Culi­nary Grief Ther­apy di­rectly ad­dresses the link be­tween food and wid­ow­hood. (Be­reave­ment coun­sel­lors now use “wi­dow” as a gen­derneu­tral term, like ac­tor or waiter.)

The three-year-old group grew out of a 2016 study on the dif­fi­cul­ties of eat­ing and cook­ing as a wi­dow. Gro­cery shop­ping and pre­par­ing meals alone could be painful and over­whelm­ing, the study found, and lead wi­d­ows to skip meals or eat in ex­pen­sive or un­healthy ways.

“Cook­ing and meal­times are some of the most over­looked as­pects of grief,” said Heather Nick­rand, lead author of the study. “How many peo­ple are ac­tu­ally asked: ‘How is the cook­ing or gro­cery shop­ping go­ing? Are you eat­ing OK?’ ”

In re­sponse, she founded Culi­nary Grief Ther­apy, which uses demon­stra­tions and group dis­cus­sions over meals to teach par­tic­i­pants how to cook, eat and shop for one, along­side other wi­d­ows. She runs train­ing ses­sions and at­tends con­fer­ences, help­ing other com­mu­nity cen­tres and be­reave­ment groups de­velop their own ver­sions of the pro­gram.

Zawadzki is one of 30 or so wi­d­ows who come ev­ery few weeks to a large in­dus­trial kitchen at the Col­lege of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. Par­tic­i­pants learn straight­for­ward recipes with min­i­mal in­gre­di­ents, from Laura Lerdal and David Kramer, who are chefs with the pro­gram: roasted veg­eta­bles tossed in olive oil and salt, a sim­ple roast chicken, sin­gle-pan pasta. A Tues­day-night ses­sion in Au­gust cen­tred on bar­be­cue.

“In the be­gin­ning, I just didn’t want to cook. I’d make a bowl of ce­real,” said Diane Kan­tak, 78, who shared a cook­ing sta­tion with Zawadzki. Kan­tak had been mar­ried for 54 years when her hus­band, Fran­cis, died in 2013. The two women chat­ted as they chopped. Zawadzki helped an older woman near her sta­tion pry the lid off a jar, and ducked cheer­fully as some­one passed a colan­der over her head. When the group sat down to eat, many spoke about how hard it could be merely to plan a menu.

“It’s sim­ple things like, ‘What do you want for din­ner?’ ” Pat Smith, 60, said. “And it’s like, ‘I don’t know. What do I want for din­ner?’ ”

Zawadzki agreed: “You don’t have some­body to bounce your ideas off any­more.”

“And then you think to your­self,” Kan­tak said, “‘How do you not know what you want for din­ner?’ ”

She paused. “But that’s some­thing the two of you would have de­cided to­gether.”

For part­ners who weren’t the main cook, es­pe­cially older men, wid­ow­hood poses a new set of chal­lenges. Many moved straight from their mother’s food to their spouse’s, and know only a few recipes.

“I’ve still got her spices in the cab­i­net,” said John­nie Foot­man, who is in his 70s, at a re­cent meet­ing of a be­reave­ment group for men at Cal­vary Hospi­tal in New York City. “I leave them there as a me­mento, even though I don’t use them.”

Like many par­tic­i­pants at the Cal­vary group, Foot­man has been wid­owed for a few years. This meet­ing specif­i­cally dealt with food is­sues, but the men have been gath­er­ing for years, shar­ing in­ti­mate de­tails of their grief.

“The mi­crowave has bailed me out,” said Vin­cent Col­lazzi, 75, to chuck­les and nods from the oth­ers. “I don’t use the stove, but I do miss the meals.”

Sit­ting around the ta­ble to­gether, talk­ing about what hap­pened dur­ing the day: this is what many wi­d­ows say they miss the most. Some eat on the couch or at restau­rants. With­out a spouse sit­ting op­po­site, the kitchen ta­ble can feel un­bal­anced, a see­saw for one.

“That has to be re­learned,” said R. Benyamin Cir­lin, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Loss & Re­newal, a be­reave­ment prac­tice in Man­hat­tan. “Time has to be re­learned, now that time of eat­ing is re­ally a sign of one’s changed iden­tity.”

Marie Bright’s hus­band, Roger, died last year. They ate break­fast to­gether ev­ery day at a wooden ta­ble in their apart­ment near Prospect Park in Brook­lyn; each would wait un­til the other was home to eat din­ner, even if it meant en­dur­ing a grum­bling stomach.

Now, even when she goes out with friends, Bright, 68, still feels she has to be home by 6:30 p.m. Some­times she orders take­out, but most nights, she’s not hun­gry.

“I can’t cook,” she said, her voice break­ing. “I just can’t.”

For Jeanne Heifetz, the home in Brook­lyn, that she shared with her hus­band, the late writer Ju­ris Jur­je­vics, is the place where he is most present and most ab­sent. Jur­je­vics died un­ex­pect­edly last Novem­ber at age 75. Since then, Heifetz, 59, has been fact-check­ing his third novel, to be pub­lished posthu­mously.

“When some­one dies sud­denly, it’s like Pom­peii,” said Heifetz, whose art­work is help­ing her through her grief. “It’s a mo­ment frozen in time.”

In her re­frig­er­a­tor, a large hunk of Lat­vian bread, which Jur­je­vics’s sis­ter brought them a few days be­fore he died, still sits un­fin­ished. There is also a bag of grapes, which he was halfway through eat­ing; they’re prob­a­bly raisins by now, she said, but she can’t bring her­self to throw them out.

“It isn’t as though you spend ev­ery day mak­ing grand dec­la­ra­tions of love for one an­other,” Heifetz said, her cheeks wet with tears. “It’s that daily con­ver­sa­tion of, ‘I’m go­ing to the Key Food, what would you like me to pick up for you?’ ”

Restau­rants are hard. Church is hard. So­cial life is hard.

“I have been de­moted to lunch,” Lau­rie Bur­rows Grad, 75, the author of “The Joke’s Over, You Can Come Back Now,” wrote about ad­just­ing to life with­out her hus­band. Be­fore, she said, her friends would have had them over for din­ner, a cou­ple among cou­ples. For a while, she ate only choco­late and pop­corn, savour­ing the spice and the crunch. A life­long cook, she said chop­ping onions in her Los An­ge­les home soothed her.

Some wi­d­ows have gained weight, oth­ers have lost. Deb­o­rah Stephens, 64, who lives in Irmo, S.C., has dropped 71 pounds since her hus­band, David, died nearly two years ago. For months, she would go en­tire days on a cup of cof­fee in the morn­ing and a cheese stick in the af­ter­noon. She could barely get 500 calo­ries in. Her throat was too con­stricted to swal­low.

“Food was the last thing that I wanted,” Stephens said.

Her hus­band had loved to eat, she said, and she had loved to cook for him. When they moved his hospice bed into the kitchen so he could die at home, it felt right to her. Taste it­self can feel like a be­trayal. One part­ner is left be­hind with the things of life — the smell of mush­rooms sautéing in but­ter — while the other doesn’t get to any­more.

“It’s so hard for me to look at a beau­ti­ful bag of cher­ries and think that he should have them, he should be able to en­joy them,” Heifetz said.

To help wi­d­ows through their grief and sense of iden­tity loss, Nick­rand, the founder of Culi­nary Grief Ther­apy, hands out a cheat sheet, now re­leased as abook, to class par­tic­i­pants to help them cook again. One sugges­tion is “Keep it Sim­ple: Avoid caus­ing ad­di­tional work for your­self such as us­ing pa­per plates to elim­i­nate do­ing dishes.” An­other is “Change Rou­tines: Con­sider hav­ing your meals at a dif­fer­ent time of the day, in a dif­fer­ent room, or serv­ing foods you typ­i­cally did not have.”

When Zawadzki grew frus­trated with all the food she was wast­ing, Nick­rand sug­gested she ask for smaller por­tions from the baker or the butcher.

“And I go, ‘Re­ally?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah,’ ” Zawadzki re­called. “And son of a gun, I was so stunned when I asked some­one for only a few slices of bread, and they said, ‘Oh, sure.’ ”

She felt bet­ter that she wasn’t wast­ing any­thing, she said. Her mother had raised her to clean her plate. When she couldn’t, it felt like a dou­ble punch.

Ev­ery year, on the an­niver­sary of their first date, Zawadzki goes to the same lit­tle res­tau­rant they went to when she was 15. She orders a choco­late ice cream soda and a turkey BLT, which they ate on that day more than 50 years ago, and sits there, think­ing about him.

“He’s prob­a­bly look­ing down say­ing, ‘Re­ally Michele? Re­ally?’ ” she said, laugh­ing. “But it works for me. I’m hold­ing onto those mem­o­ries, and I’m fi­nally able to laugh with him again.”


Lau­rie Bur­rows Grad is the author of “The Joke’s Over, You Can Come Back Now,” a book about ad­just­ing to life with­out her hus­band.



Above: Marie Bright and her hus­band, who died last year, used to wait for each other be­fore eat­ing din­ner ev­ery night. Even if she’s out, Bright still makes sure she’s home by 6:30 p.,m. Right: Vin­cent Col­lazzi says since his wife’s death, the mi­crowave has bailed him out. “I don’t use the stove, but I do miss the meals,” he says.

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