When you hear the word grief, you most likely think of death. However, grief is an emotional response to loss. People can grieve all types of losses, such as friends moving away, break-ups, job loss and drastic changes to their lives.
It is not an everyday occurrence to hear somebody say they are grieving the loss of their eating disorder. We tend to think of grief as the loss of someone, or something that we care about, or something that was good in our lives. The reality is someone recovering from an eating disorder may have viewed the eating disorder as both good and bad. They can simultaneously despise, and long for their eating disorder, and the purpose it serves.
Jenni Schafer describes in her book "Life without Ed", the grief process in eating disorder recovery, as being similar to that of a break up with a partner. "When I first tried to leave Ed, I mistakenly thought that I could just get rid of all the bad things, but I was not ready to let go of the good things" .
It can be hard, for anyone to comprehend that an eating disorder can bring anything good to life. For the person whose life has become enmeshed with that of the eating disorder, the focus is often on the perceived good. The memory of the time it saved them from their sadness, protected them from their fear, numbed them from the overwhelm of any emotion. As Van Duerzen Adams states in the book "Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy", "the eating disorder becomes a way of protecting the individual from the stresses of life "the focussing on the intake of food becomes a means of finding distraction from the paradoxes and dilemmas of existence" .
For us to really understand the grief process in eating disorders, it is vital that we understand the role that the eating disorder plays in an individual's life. Aside from the person losing an aspect of themselves that has become entwined with their identity, they are losing their protector. They are losing the sense of familiarity, the sense of direction, the comfort of those dark constricting arms wrapped around their being.
While on a recovery journey, it is important to have hope for what will be, the life that is really deserved, the bright future that can be attained and the ease of not trying to please yourself and your eating disorder at the same time. It is also important to have compassion for the fact that many people are unfamiliar with the feeling of being free, the feeling of being without rules and protection and that can be terrifying.
Grief and hope both need attention. We need to honour the fact that fear will arise and give space for someone to look at fear for the first time without the arms of their protector wrapped tightly around them, both comforting them and suffocating them at the same time.
We cannot decide which emotions need the most attention, we can only deal with each conflicting emotion as it arises and learn to sit with it, let it come and allow it to go. Honour your grief, respect it and allow it to go.
1. Schaefer, J. (2003). Life Without Ed: How one woman declared independence from her eating disorder and how you can too. McGraw-Hill
2. Van Deurzen E, Adams M (2016). Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy