The Starting Point—Filling the Emptiness

09/20/2017 12:14 pm ET

While comfort foods or losing yourself in work may temporarily cover up the pain, avoiding your grief does not make it go away.

Dave Barry wrote, “My psychologist tells me it is more satisfying to finish what I’ve started. He’s right. Today I’ve finished two bags of M&M’s and a chocolate cake, and I feel better already.” If you’re a person who regularly goes for a “chocolate fix,” this quote could make you chuckle. However, it also points out our love/hate relationship with food, especially when we’re grieving.

When you feel that familiar gnawing pain in your gut—that unsettled empty void—it’s so easy to go for the comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, biscuits and gravy, a juicy steak, or anything else that seems like it will “fill up” the emptiness or “stuff down” those pesky emotions that keep welling up. Perhaps instead you go for a glass of wine (or two or three), a few beers, or a stiff martini. Another common alternative is drowning out the pain with work, intense exercise, endless internet searches and YouTube videos, or an overly-busy schedule.

But none of these things work for long. You aren’t really longing for chocolate, and you’re not really hungry for food. Alcohol only covers up the pain temporarily. After the work or the frenzied activity is done, the grief awaits you.

Pushing down the grief, denying it, or covering it up will not make it go away. In fact, suppressed grief simply festers inside and waits for an opportunity to show itself. It may come out in physical ways—headaches, neck aches, backaches, or stomach aches. It may come out in psychological ways like outbursts of anger, impatience with people who don’t deserve it, depression, or out-of-proportion reactions to something else that happens. Perhaps saddest is when there is so much repressed grief and hurt lurking inside that a person becomes too afraid to get too close to anyone or to love deeply again, or when they never fully heal.

Healing Does Not Mean Forgetting

It is certainly a lot more difficult to confront the loss than to indulge in a hot fudge sundae. Yet, to heal, you need to avoid that temptation to cover it up, push it down, deny its existence, or pretend it is something that it’s not. Instead, you need to assimilate the loss into your life, let go of what can no longer be, and build a future that will be different than what you had planned. This requires finding ways to express the sadness: tell someone about the void, cry whenever you feel the need, write in a journal or write letters to the one who died, pound nails, employ art or music, or find other ways to express and process what you’re experiencing. It may be helpful to go to a support group, or to find a good grief coach or counselor who can help you navigate the path. Remember that healing doesn’t mean you forget. At the same time that you gradually let go of the past, form memories and stories that endure. Rather than “losing” the one who died, you carry the life, love, and lessons with you for the rest of your life.

When you face the pain honestly and work through it with the help of supportive people, you will eventually heal. You may also find that as you quit substituting false fixes, a hot fudge sundae can be even more enjoyable because it’s a treat and not a leaky bandage.

As you learn to trust the healing process more than you trust your favorite comfort foods, you begin to avoid the temporary, illusive solutions in favor of those that will bring lasting healing and happiness. And along the way, don’t forget that you can still have a few M&M’s.

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