Living With Polio
Lonely and I Eat
Post-Polio Health, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2010.
Dr. Stephanie T. Machell is a psychologist in independent practice in the Greater Boston area and consultant to the International Rehabilitation Center for Polio, Spaulding-Framingham Outpatient Center, Framingham, Massachusetts. Her father is a polio survivor.
Question: My husband died a year ago and I am lonely. When I am lonely, I eat too much. Do you have any suggestions for me?
Response from Stephanie T. Machell, PsyD:
I’m very sorry for your loss. Losing a spouse is one of the most difficult and stressful experiences anyone can have. A good friend who recently lost her husband told me that thinking of herself as an individual after so many years of being part of a couple was difficult. She felt that her husband had become an integral part of her. But even so, the loss of his physical presence in her life was terribly painful. Such a loss creates a void that even good friends and family may not be able to fill.
Food is often used to fill such a void. In the words of Doug Heffernan from The King of Queens, “Food is always there, and it’s always good.” When you feel lonely, it’s all too easy to go to the kitchen and get something to eat. It gives comfort and doesn’t demand anything in return. It can evoke memories of happier times, maybe even of times shared with your husband. Because food provides such easy and reliable comfort, emotional eating can be a hard habit to break, especially at a time when you have little or no energy to look for alternatives.
This comfort is almost always short-lived. Eating too much of even the most delicious food doesn’t solve the real problem of loss and loneliness. The feelings return and may be joined by guilt or shame about overeating.
But right now, the most important thing is to give yourself permission to grieve. Tell yourself that each person grieves in his or her own way, and however you are grieving is just fine. If food helps, let it for now. It’s not a permanent solution, but if it gives some comfort in the short run, let it be. Perhaps set a deadline to reexamine your eating patterns, and until that deadline, give yourself permission to eat without guilt.
Setting a time each day to grieve can help. Block out two hours each day, look at photos, listen to music that reminds you of your spouse, write about him and really feel the loss and sadness. At other times of the day when you feel a wave of grief, remind yourself to save it for your two-hour designated time. Do this until two hours feels too long and you start to get a little bored.
You can also try to find other ways of comforting and nurturing yourself. Giving yourself permission to do the things that matter most to you and give your life light and color can be difficult after a loss, but it is a big part of healing your pain and loneliness. Supportive friends and family may help ease your loneliness. Animals offer unconditional love and comfort that often goes beyond that of our human families.
Reading, sewing, knitting, listening to music, artwork or other hobbies or interests are ways of connecting with yourself or with others through clubs or classes. Religious practices and meditation can help you connect with a higher power and help you cope and make meaning of your loss. Journaling, either in words and/or pictures, can help you get in touch with and release your feelings. It can be healing to get out in nature, even if it’s just sitting on the porch or in your car looking at a beautiful view.
There are support groups for widows where you can connect with other women who are dealing with the loneliness you feel. This can be helpful if you feel that your family and friends don’t understand what you are experiencing. Reading books about others who have had losses can also help you to feel less alone.
If you find that none of this helps, or if you are feeling hopeless or overwhelmed by all you are dealing with, you might consider seeing a mental health professional. In therapy, you can talk about what you’re going through as well as learn and practice new coping skills.