Grief is a normal reaction to any major loss. If you’ve lost a loved one during the pandemic, you may have experienced complicated grief. The normal feelings of yearning and sadness may have been complicated by not being able to be with your loved one or not even being able to go through normal rituals that can bring a sense of comfort and closure. Maybe during the pandemic, you’ve experienced other serious losses – loss of a job, the breakup of a significant relationship, loss of a long term friendship or you’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness (including COVID-19). All of these losses can also be a cause for grieving.

In this podcast, you will learn:

1. What are the signs that you are having a grief reaction
2. How binge eating, food addiction and emotional eating are a normal response to grief and loss.
3. How to manage your grief, cope with losses during the pandemic – lessons learned from personal experience.


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Hi everyone, it’s Dr. Carolyn here with podcast episode number 80 today we’re going to talk about the relationship between grief and binge eating, compulsive overeating, food addiction and emotional eating. So I know many of you have experienced different losses throughout the last year, 2020. So you may not have been the loss of a loved one. So we’re going to also talk about other forms of losses and what we need to do to heal from those stay tuned.

Well, the COVID 19 pandemic and pretty much all of 2020 has turned our lives upside down and it’s caused a marked increase in things like, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders and of course eating disorders. So it’s been very difficult and stressful for most of us. I’m including myself in here to manage, having to stay home and be socially distant from others, to work from home, I know some of you are working from home and you’re also doing homeschooling. So you have two full-time jobs and it’s, but it’s especially difficult to deal with any losses during the pandemic, any grief experiences.

So grief is really a normal reaction to any major loss. It doesn’t have to be just the loss of a loved one. Although that’s been a common one too, during the pandemic, obviously many people have passed away either from the virus or from other things during the time that we were in lockdown. And that can be very, very difficult. If you’ve lost a loved one during the pandemic, maybe you’ve experienced what we call complicated grief. This is the normal feelings of yearning and sadness can become more complicated by not being able to have the opportunity to say goodbye to someone, for example, or not being able to go through the normal rituals that bring us a sense of comfort and closure. I know in my own life, I have a close family member who’s been in and out of the hospital with a serious medical condition. And generally I would have been on the first plane out to go and be with that person and also to help, um, manage his illness. But because of the pandemic, I’ve not been able to do that. So I’ve had to give whatever support I could on the phone or FaceTime. And that’s not quite the same. It’s not quite as satisfying.

So, if you have lost a loved one during the pandemic, you may have been unable to mourn their death in person with your friends or family members, but there are many, many other types of losses during the pandemic. This could include losing your job or financial losses, not making enough money, reduction in support services, you know, maybe your babysitter’s no longer been able to help you with the children and other changes in our lifestyle. And these losses can happen all at the same time. Like you may have more than one going on at once and that can complicate and even make grief last longer and make it more difficult for you to heal from that experience from that grieving experience.

So David Kessler, who is a grief expert, says we’re feeling a number of different grief, we feel the world has changed and it has, we know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way. And we realize things will be different just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9-11. Things will change. And this is the point at which they changed the loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving collectively, and we’re not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. So I liked the way he describes that. So grief can happen for a number of different reasons, but when it does happen, it really changes your day to day routines and the things that you usually do and to find comfort and feelings of stability. So some of the common symptoms you can have during a grieving reaction. I think it’s important to notice because say, yeah, I think most of us recognize if you lose a loved one, that’s definitely a grief process, but you may not recognize that leaving, losing a job that you’ve had for 10 years or a career change that has changed your lifestyle is also can cause grief reactions.

So let me tell you some of the reactions that are part of that some of the symptoms that are part of, uh, grief, reactions include shock, disbelief or denial, anxiety, distress, anger (very common), periods of sadness, loss of sleep, and loss of appetite. So, if you have any of those symptoms, even if you haven’t suffered the death of a loved one, you may be experiencing grief from other types of losses. So we know that, you know, many people after that initial period of loss of appetite, respond to the chaos from grief and the sense of a loss of control and uncertainty and sadness by bingeing or you know, emotionally eating or obsessing about food or their body. And that’s the way in which we use food to numb ourselves from these raw feelings. And that’s pretty common and it’s natural that we would do that, but it does give us a false sense of control because the pain that you’re feeling is not going to go away, unless you meet it head on, we know that emotions can’t be fixed by food or by obsessing about your body that’s only a distraction. So if you find yourself, for example, compelled to go on a diet or restricting what you eat on purpose or binge eating, isolating more to avoid activities that involve food. This may also be a sign that you may be using food to self-medicate the pain of your loss. And I think you’ve heard me talk about that, that, that only causes more problems.

As opposed to many people I know, unfortunately I’ve had quite a history of having to cope with grief. Uh, I think my earliest loss was at the age of 18, I lost my beloved grandmother who really was like a mother to me. And then by the time I was 21, my dad had died and the list goes on. I won’t bore you with all the details. However, I have to say that the death of my son when he was 29 was one of these experiences. And recently I read about the death of two of president Biden’s children, which reminded me of how many of us have lost children and how painful that experience can be. My son Noah’s death almost broke my spirit. I wrote about this experience about nine years after his death in a blog in psychology today called grieving and pieces, which I think is still pretty pertinent. But my, you know, my grief and loss in response to his death just was shockingly raw and so overwhelming. It was hard to even get out of bed and move on with my life. But that I think that one of the things I learned from that is that we do grieve in pieces even when now it’s been 16 years since he died. And it’s still from time to time, I have moments and recently last week I had a dream about him. Which felt so real and the longing for him was so strong. It was as strong as the day he had died. Also several years ago, my brother, who who’s only 13 months younger than I died after a long struggle with addiction and the medical consequences of his addiction to first heroin and later to alcohol at his death again, I was surprised at the depth of pain and the sense of loss that I felt not having him in my life.

So I’ve spoken about my son’s death in the past, which, and I’ve, I’ve shared it with patients who are going through the same thing and recently well, it’s been a year now. I did do TEDxPleasantGrove. So I did a Ted talk, that, where I talked about my brother’s death and his life. And I feel like that was a way to honor both of them as well as a way to help me cope with some of the, my, you know, my grief.

Another thing that I know from all of my experiences that everybody’s experience of grief and loss is unique. There’s no right way to grieve. So as you can see, for example, I tend to speak about and share the experience. You know, I’m not saying that I’m any better than someone who’s in too much pain to do that. Believe me, there were many, many times when I couldn’t even speak about my son’s death and I didn’t, but when I was able to, I shared it and I’ve found that it helped relieve some of my pain, but, you know, as I said, using food to cope with loss is not uncommon. For example, after 9-11, studies showed a marked increase in emotional eating of, of foods we call comfort foods, like everything from mashed potatoes to peanut butter, to Mac and cheese, the chocolate, et cetera, whatever. But we know that even though it’s normal, using food only provides temporary relief and it doesn’t really address the central issue, which is the need to grieve that loss. So, you know, I could tell you all about the five stages of grief. I could give you coping tips and strategies. But I, you know, you can find all that information online really it’s, it’s not that useful except to help you be aware that what you’re going through is definitely normal.

What I’d like to do now is to share with you some of what I’ve learned through my own personal experiences.

Number one, like I said, it’s always surprised, surprising how much it hurts to lose someone. It’s no wonder we want to find comfort wherever we can. Yeah, because grief and loss really hurts. It feels like a kick in the chest or punch in the gut. And it often for me has felt like I just can’t handle this. So what I have taken to doing is handling the parts of it. I can. Uh, whenever they present themselves. So I have a good cry here, or I talked to a friend or to my sisters about my brother and that get some of it out. But just little by little, I have resolved to feel my feelings and feel them for however long it takes, you know, like I said, it’s been 16, almost 17 years since my son died, which is shocking in and of itself because to me, it seems like just yesterday. But things do still come up and when they do, I try to address them.

Number two. Even when a loss feels overwhelming, we are all much stronger than we think. If you allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you have, whether it’s sadness or anger or anxiety or yearning, even if you do it a little bit at a time, as I said, that’s what will lessen the pain? Pushing down the pain with food only feeds the myth that you can’t handle it. So we are all stronger than we think.

Number three. Don’t let anyone tell you, you should be over it by now. We all grieve in different ways and for different time periods, the only caveat is that you, if you find yourself unable to take care of yourself, to go to work, et cetera, after a reasonable period of time, you may be experiencing depression. Which is really often associated with grief and in that case, you may need to reach out for expert health help either from a therapist or from your primary care physician.

Number four. Grief and loss don’t just magically go away over time. I know people say time, heals all wounds. Well, I’m calling BS on that at times you still may feel gut wrenching sadness and other times you may feel regrets or longings or, uh, who knows, but it’s not time that makes it better. It’s you feeling those emotions that make it better. So that’s just important to know. I think also, I, I would just like to encourage people who are experiencing loss to you know, if you’re having strong feelings that feel overwhelming, ask yourself what you’re thinking. Like, what am I telling myself about what happened? Cause sometimes we tell ourselves things that make the grief worse. Like I should have been able to stop my mother from dying of colon cancer, or I should have been able to keep a car from hitting, you know, my, my brother or someone, whatever you’re telling yourself often it involves something about how you should have, would have, or could have done something different that will just also keep the grief in place. So trying not to get lost in guilt or blame, because of what happened. It’s easy to do, but it only will keep the grief stuck.

And finally I would strongly recommend creating rituals rather than being focused on you know, the day, the anniversary of the loss, whether it be the loss of a loved one or breakup of a relationship or whatever, trying not to focus on the day and anticipate what’s going to how bad you’re going to feel each day. Because honestly you will, if you anticipated, uh, that’s called anticipatory grief, actually. Consider instead developing new rituals that you can use to honor your loved one on a day, maybe their birthday or another day that is special to you where you can honor them in a different way. Uh, doing something you know, with other people who may know the person or having have doing that virtually, uh, consider interacting on phone calls or apps that allow you to have some kind of shared ritual, to honor your loved one.

So I just want to also give a special mention to, how children deal with grief, children and adolescents can often have really different reactions to grief and, and they may have a hard time depending on their age in understanding what’s going on and obviously in coping with the loss of a loved one. So sometimes children will appear sad and be willing to talk about missing a person. But at other times they may act out and just you know, throw a fit. Sometimes they may be playing and seem like nothing’s wrong and everything’s going well, they’re interacting with friends or siblings. But at other times, they may soak or stay in their room, particularly adolescents. So obviously, you know, during the pandemic, they may also grieve over the loss of their routines, such as going to school and playing with friends, having play dates, all of those things, parents in other, you know, if you’re a parent of a child or a teenager, it’s really important to help them process their grief. Because they don’t know how to do this from most people who are young, uh, whatever’s happening is probably their first experience of any kind of loss. So don’t take it lightly, what if, even if it’s not the loss of a loved one, don’t take it lightly that they’re missing their routines. And that, that feels like a loss to them or that not being able to play with their friends feels like a loss to them. So some of the things you can do to support a child or an adolescent, who’s going through a grief process is you can ask them questions to determine what they’re feeling and that’s, you know, I think a good thing to do because also you’re helping them become aware of what they’re feeling and being able to voice what they’re feeling. And also give them permission to grieve by just allowing them time to talk or to express their feelings. In other ways, maybe it’s not talking, maybe it’s a drawing or using Play-Doh or you know, beating on a pillow to express your anger, but you can find other creative ways to help them express their grief. Maybe your ritual would be, you know, making a card for someone that they’re not able to see like a playmate and sending that in the mail, these kinds of rituals can help them overcome their grief. And, and when you, you know, they’re going to have lots of questions, so you’ll have to come up with answers that are age appropriate, obviously. And then the next thing you can do that will stand them in good stead for life is to teach them some coping strategies, whether it be taking four deep breaths, or, you know, taking a walk around the block or sitting and having a chat over a hot cocoa. Whatever strategies that are age appropriate, it’s important for you to help reinforce those, especially during these difficult times.
So taking care of yourself, also models that for children. So if you’re, you know, I know most of us going through a heavy grieving process may not get out of bed some days or may get out of bed, but stay in our pajamas and sit in front of the TV all day. That is obviously part of the grieving process, but hopefully it doesn’t last too terribly long and if you can maintain your routines and you have children, that’s really preferable. But even if you are in your pajamas on the couch for days on end, just talk to your children about how you’re feeling, because that again, models for them the normal reaction to grief and being able to spend time with them doing activities they enjoy will help them cope.

Now, how do you know if your child may need some more professional help? Well, if they’ve had major changes in their behavior, like acting out, being inconsolable, not interested in their daily activities, changes in their eating or sleeping habits. If you notice persistent anxiety or depression or sadness, then you want to speak to your child’s pediatrician and see if that this is still a normal part of their grieving process, or if they may need some play therapy.

So I will leave you with this, this is my advice if you’re willing to take it, take care of yourself no matter what. You know, get up even if you don’t want to take a shower, put on some clothes, take a walk, go outside, being in, be in nature, eat regularly even if you may not feel that hungry, it’s important to keep your strength up because grieving is hard work. Spend some time in nature, as I said, reach out for support from friends, or if you need help from a professional, get that. As always, I advise that you be kind to yourself, don’t judge yourself for how you’ve reacted to the loss, whatever that loss may be. I hope this was helpful. This is Dr. Carolyn signing off.

Thanks for listening to the podcast on grieving, overeating, bingeing and obsessive food. That’s two goes hand and hand so it’s give your self some grace, don’t be too judgmental if you find yourself bingeing when you’re experiencing major loss of any kind. But also remind yourself that best way to stop bingeing is not to use it to numb your emotions but instead to feel the feels as the kids say now adays. So please leave me review, I appreciate it trying to word out about the podcast. And next week I’ll be talking about 5 things you didn’t know about food addiction. So join me next week for 5 things you didn’t know about food addiction. Thanks for listening.