Food Writer Finds Recipe for Healing After Tragic Loss

After recovering lawyer, food writer and pastry chef Lisa Ruland lost her husband Erik in 2014 in a tragic mountain climbing accident, she found herself trying to navigate both her grief and the loss’s impact on her relationship with food.

“It wasn’t anything I ever planned to research. I just found myself in this reality and it was one of those things I noticed that wasn’t really talked about, but I think it exists for everyone because we all eat, we all experience loss and those things will coexist,” she told Solace.

At first, Ruland couldn’t eat or go to a restaurant without sobbing. Even years later, she could no longer bake the bread they once shared at breakfast.

Ruland explained that breakfast was an elaborate production for them. “We were those people,” she laughed.

“I think breakfast can be a particularly intimate meal and I think the intimacy and the closeness of breakfast made it more acute when he was gone. I found that the link to that bread was so strong, I thought, ‘I cannot go there. I cannot force myself to continue doing this right now.’ I just gave myself permission not to have to power through it unnecessarily and do it anyway. I said to myself, ‘You know what? Not right now’ and ‘maybe never.’”

She writes that she was continually struck by all the ways her loss impacted her relationship with food: Learning to eat alone, making “foggy-headed” cooking mistakes, shopping for one, being too sad to throw out Erik’s expired yogurt.

Ruland realized she was not alone in her experience and launched an online project called “Food + Grief” to find “​​ways that heal, nurture, and provide strength in numbers.”

Her project collects stories, questions, art and recipes from others who are grieving and remembering their loved ones. She spoke with Solace about how the project continues to connect people and bring the healing power of a shared meal to others.

Ruland has mixed three main ingredients that are part of the Food + Grief project: First, what can you eat when you are grieving?

“When someone dies and you are grieving, grief is a very physical thing … and I realized my appetite really changed. I had no appetite, everything was gray including the sense of food. I really needed similar food to when I was sick in other ways, easy things: chicken, soup, rice, toast, those kinds of things.”

Secondly, what can you bring to a neighbor, family or friend who is grieving?

“I think another way people experience food and grief’s relationship is in what they can bring to others who might be experiencing grief. I think people want to give something of themselves and support people.”

Lastly, a forum for the stories, recipes and memories of those we mourn, “the way that food links us to people we’ve lost.”

As she approaches what would have been her tenth wedding anniversary with Erik, Ruland tells Solace that she’s living a full life. She now remarried and has a stepdaughter. Fittingly, it was a chocolate birthday cake that played a crucial role in the sweet developing friendship of a young widow and widower who later fell in love and married.

Now, celebrating Christmas with her new blended family, she makes cinnamon rolls – a tradition her husband’s late wife had begun. But as a trained pastry chef, she skipped the instant dough and now makes them from scratch, alternating between a New York Times version and her own Sticky Bun Casserole. “We’ve kind of adapted an old tradition into a new version of that. There’s a thread of loss in a new tradition,” she said.

She recalls that one day, she realized she’d reached another milestone in her grief. She forgot to bring her tissues along with her phone, wallet and keys … and then reached home again and realized that she never needed them while she was out.

“One of the beautiful things I have heard was not so much that the hole ever gets filled, but you learn to build a life around the hole and learn to cultivate a garden around the hole. Whether that moves quickly or slowly, you do have a right to get there and it is not disloyal to the person you lost to find joy in still being alive.”

You can read more articles by and about Ruland and learn more about her Food + Grief project on her blog, Unpeeled.

Photo: Todd Estrin

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