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For many widows, the hardest part is meal time
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
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, the 68-year-old 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 down supermarket aisles, past the foods he loved.
In the checkout line, she would 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.
She said: "There are triggers everywhere with food. 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.
Jill Cohen, a grief counselor in New York, said: "It's almost like the sixth stage of grief is cooking alone." It was a reference to the now-disputed theory of the five stages of grief developed by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
Bereavement counselors said that only in the last decade have academics and non-profit groups begun directly addressing the relationship between grieving and food. At meals hosted by The Dinner Party, an organisation 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.
Ms 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 counselors now use "widow" as a gender-neutral 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; widows often skip meals or eat in expensive or unhealthy ways.
Heather Nickrand, the lead author of the study, said: "Cooking and meal times are some of the most overlooked aspects of grief. 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 programme.
Mrs Zawadzki is one of 30 or so widows who turns up every few weeks at a large industrial kitchen at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, a Chicago suburb. Participants learn straightforward recipes with minimal ingredients from Laura Lerdal and David Kramer, who are chefs with the programme: roasted vegetables tossed in olive oil and salt, a simple roast chicken, single-pan pasta. A Tuesday-night session in August centred on barbecue.
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.
At a recent meeting of a bereavement group for men at Calvary Hospital in New York City, food issues were specifically on the agenda, but the men, who have been gathering for years, share intimate details of their grief.
Vincent Collazzi, 75, said to sympathetic nods from the other participants: "The microwave has bailed me out. I don't use the stove, but I do miss the meals."
Sitting around the table together, talking about what happened during the day is what many widows say they miss the most. Some eat on the couch or at restaurants. Without a spouse sitting across from them, the kitchen table can feel unbalanced, a seesaw for one.
R. Benyamin Cirlin, the executive director of the Center for Loss & Renewal, a bereavement practice in Manhattan, said: "That has to be relearned. Time has to be relearned, now that time of eating is really a sign of one's changed identity."
Restaurants are hard. Church is hard. Social life is hard.
Laurie Burrows Grad, 75, the author of The Joke's Over, You Can Come Back Now, wrote about adjusting to life without her husband: "I have been demoted to lunch."
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 life-long 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, South Carolina, has lost more than 30 kg since her husband, David, died nearly two years ago. For months, she went 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," she 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.
"I'm no longer Mrs David Stephens. "Now, I'm Debbie Stephens. I am trying to find out who I am."
Taste itself can feel like a betrayal. One partner is left behind with the things of life - the smell of mushrooms sautéing in butter, a favourite chipped blue mug - while the other doesn't get to anymore.
Jeane Heifetz, a 59-year-old who lost her writer husband Juris Jurjevics suddenly last November at age 75, said: "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."
To help widows through their grief and sense of identity loss, Ms Nickrand of Culinary Grief Therapy hands out a cheat sheet, now released as a book, to class participants to help them cook again. One suggestion is to keep it simple; avoid causing additional work for yourself such as using paper plates to eliminate doing dishes. Another is to 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 Mrs Zawadzki grew frustrated with all the food she was wasting, Ms Nickrand suggested she ask for smaller portions from the baker or the butcher.
It had never occurred to her to do so, and she came around to feeling better about not wasting food. 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, she goes to the same 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." NYTIMES