The Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Grief

June 04, 2019

Experiencing a significant loss such as losing a loved one, a pet, a relationship, or a job can bring on feelings of grief that can be extremely overwhelming. Typical feelings associated with grief include sadness, anger, guilt, numbness, and confusion. In addition to these emotions, individuals who are grieving may have changes in their appetite, weight, and/or have difficulties with sleep. Individuals may avoid discussing the loss as well as avoid people or places that are associated with their grief. This experience can put an individual in a vulnerable position with regard to their mental health.

An eating disorder can develop when an individual’s inner resources and ability to cope are low. Individuals often struggle to cope and adapt to life changes when grieving. Focusing on food and/or your body can become an easy target in which an individual can seek comfort or distraction through certain behaviors. The period of grief following a loss can feel chaotic causing individuals to seek ways to establish control. Controlling one’s food or exercise routine can provide a false sense of control over one’s life thereby making his/her situation seem more manageable. Furthermore, the emphasis on food, weight, and body provides an easy mental distraction from the pain and anguish of experiencing a loss.

While some initial appetite changes are often normal when grieving, prolonged reliance on food/weight to cope can quickly lead to an eating disorder. To determine whether you or your loved one may be using food/weight to cope with grief and are displaying signs of an eating disorder, consider these symptoms:

* Extreme fluctuations in weight

* Loss of appetite that leads to purposeful restriction of caloric intake

* Episodes of binge eating

* Purging behaviors (vomiting, laxative use, diuretic use, excessive exercise)

* Preoccupation with numbers including calorie counting, weight, clothing size

* Increased isolation to avoid food related activities

Grieving the loss of someone or something can shake us to our core and throw us off balance both physically and emotionally. Having the capacity to love deeply puts us in a position to one day feel great loss and pain.

Here are some ways to cope while grieving a loss:

* Practice self-compassion (remind yourself that you are unique and therefore the way you grieve is unique; have realistic expectations of yourself)

* Find close/safe people to talk with and share your feelings about the loss when ready

* Find a creative outlet to honor the person/thing you are grieving

* Have patience with yourself and others as you adjust to the new normal

* Identify ways to self-soothe (deep breathing, mindfulness, walking, going to the beach, listening to music)

* Journal your thoughts and feelings

* Read books pertaining to grief/loss that resonate for you (1. It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand by Megan Devine 2. Grieving Mindfully by Sameet M. Kumar 3. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler)

* Seek professional help if you are experiencing signs of a mental illness and/or if you feel you need additional support during your grieving process

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, are currently grieving a loss, or even need to grieve the loss of your eating disorder, support is available and you are worthy of it.

Tali Yuz Berliner, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in the state of Florida. She has helped individuals heal from a range of psychological concerns including: eating disorders, anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, grief/loss, and life transitions. Dr. Berliner has provided professional psychological services in a residential treatment center, partial-hospitalization program, outpatient mental health center, and on university campuses. For more information or to contact Dr. Berliner, please visit