The Germans have a word for emotional eating: kummerspeck. It means “grief bacon” or “sorrow fat” – the literal weight a person puts on after a traumatic incident.
The Jews are particularly knowledgeable about kummerspeck, as our traditional death ritual involves sitting in a house for seven days while friends and family arrive bearing gifts of food. The sticky chocolate bubka I ate at my grandfather’s shiva sustained me through the days of grieving and painful family moments.
In Jewish culture, the immediate family of the deceased is forbidden from cooking and no shiva is complete without a calendar taped to the refrigerator, each day hastily scribbled with names of food providers and meals. Flowers are not permitted, so meals and cookies pile up as people’s desire to bring nourishment outweighs the mourners’ and guests’ ability to eat. And yet, few people will show up at the door empty-handed.
The link between mourning and food goes back thousands of years, as funeral feasts were both a common way to ward off vengeful spirits and to nourish those left behind, says Sarah Chavez, a California-based historian with a specialty in food and death rituals. “The act of sharing food creates a space for people to gather and share a memory of the people they are mourning,” she says.
In parts of India, people are not allowed to turn on the stove, and instead rely on friends bringing meals to their door. Koreans have a detailed ritual feast with symbolic foods that are offered to their ancestors, as do the Chinese. In parts of the Middle East, Armenia, Greece and Turkey, mourners make a sweetened semolina halva to mark major transitions and the bereaved share it with visiting guests. The sweetness of these foods is not random, Chavez says. “Incorporating something sweet into a funeral reminds the living that we are here with these heavy emotions, but life is sweet and worth living.”
It is not really hunger that one feels at places of mourning, rather that food briefly fills an existential emptiness. The act of eating is habitual and gives us a way to keep our hands and mouths busy when we feel aimless or are avoiding overly close well-wishers. The familiar platters and casseroles may not be delicious, but their familiarity breeds comfort when chaos reigns.
Julia Samuel, a British grief therapist and author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, says that food can help make the invisible feelings of grief more visible. “One of the aspects of grief is that it feels like a hole. One way of loving is to act in a way to fill up that hole,” she says.
In North America, we are particularly uncomfortable talking about death, and as we move away from the religious institutions that provided scaffolding for us in a time of need, food may be a bridge to those difficult conversations. “The worst thing that can happen to a person experiencing grief is when people don’t do anything. If bringing food and knocking on the door is what gets people in, then it is better than nothing,” Samuel says. “Food is a less intense and scary way of bringing love.”
Many go-to funeral foods are true comfort foods, which can feel nourishing as you eat but can weigh you down, literally and emotionally. This is typified by the American Midwest favourite of funeral potatoes, a dish of potatoes or hash browns mixed with cheese, sour cream, corn flakes and other pantry staples. Fried chicken and Jell-O salads are dishes typically found in the American South, and there is an Amish funeral pie – a double-crust pie filled with raisins. Homemakers used to keep these dishes in the freezer, ready for the next funeral.
How can one help today? Dropping off a casserole that can be frozen is a good start, but recognizing the personal habits of the mourner is even better. “The memories we have of a person are often about food – their favourite dishes, or recipes, the meals we shared with them. We can honour them by bringing their favourites,” says Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of the website Modern Loss and co-author of Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief. Beginners Welcome.
Soffer remembers the kitchen counters piled high with lasagnas and withering Edible Arrangements after her mother died. Her advice to people wondering what to bring or send is to ask themselves: What would be nourishing at this time for that person?
Some people find comfort in a baked ziti or a platter of dumplings, but for others a fresh kale salad or sushi is what fuels them. While we like to feed our feelings with carbs, most people also need fresh and nutritious food to feel healthy again, Samuel says. A platter of healthy breakfast muffins or frozen packages of ready-to-go smoothies may be as appreciated as another platter of brownies or a gooey lasagna.
Once the official grieving is over, the leftovers stored in the freezer or sent out the door, the counters cleaned and the bubka crumbs swept up, mourners may still feel adrift. This is another moment when food can be a reminder of the love that still surrounds them.
Soffer no longer brings food with her to a mourner’s home but instead organizes an online calendar of food delivery, such as Meal Train, so friends and neighbours can help support the mourner in the weeks to come. “That is turning digital action to thoughtful action,” she says.
The universal truth is that no food can cure the pain of loss, no matter how many funeral potatoes or healthy muffins one consumes. Easing the pain of grief requires the human connection that comes from breaking bread together, whether the meal is traditional funeral food or just what the local delivery person brought. Kummerspeck or no kummerspeck.