After His Death, I Didn’t Cook Anymore’: Widows on the Pain of Dining Alone

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Routine grocery shopping brought tears, widows said. Some had started eating on the couch, overwhelmed by the now-empty chair at the dining table. And one woman recalled tender evening dances in the kitchen.

After The Times published a Food article about how mealtimes can be difficult for widows (a gender-neutral term that bereavement counselors now use), hundreds of readers described the heartbreak and joy that food and cooking can bring after losing a partner.

Below is a selection of their most poignant stories, which have been condensed and lightly edited.

Taking over after the cook dies

It gives me some comfort to use her recipes and the kitchen gadgets she gathered over the years. The other day while making bread dough, I dropped and broke her favorite pottery bowl and it made me cry.

It was a bowl I had shopped for as a Christmas gift and she was thrilled with it, perhaps one of the few times I actually got it right.

— Robert Honeywell, New Albin, Iowa

Tears at the supermarket

My husband did the grocery shopping. Five weeks before he died, he took me with him to show me where everything was located. He had no hair because of chemotherapy. He was weak and his knees were slightly bent. A child of about 6 made fun of him.

Now, when I shop there, I “see” him on that day. It is unbearably painful and I can barely keep the tears at bay.

— Jody Wise, Secaucus, N.J.

When she passed, although I had some ability to fend for myself, the supermarket became my trigger. Grief at the prospect of shopping for one, not picking up the things that she cared for, buying what I wanted instead — it just hurt.

Shopping for one is not easy. It’s all part of a piece. You never get over it. You get used to it.

— Richard Bittner, Greenwich, N.Y.

That first walk into Safeway nearly broke me.

— Henry Strong, Potomac, Md.

Longing for the evening rituals

I was always the cook and he did the cleanup. Prep and cooking time meant having a glass of wine, catching up after a day at work, listening to music and sometimes dancing in the kitchen.

I miss it so, and I’m still crushed by the lack of companionship.

— Mary K. Lee, Leesburg, Va.

Dinner was the hardest time of day when my husband died. The hours between 5 and 7 p.m. were when we would connect at the end of the day.

After his death, I didn’t cook anymore; I would just pick up ready-made stuff. When I craved some real food, like a steak or a burger, I would go to a restaurant by myself at 5 p.m. That is when the singles eat. Then I could leave before the couples and families arrived.

When your spouse dies, you go from planet “married” to planet “single.” The two do not mix.

— Linda Riviere, Hawaii

Withering alone

After he passed, I fell into a routine of “cooking” salad for dinner, accompanied by cheese and crackers. No more roasts, soups, chili or anything that required a stovetop, an oven or even a slow cooker.

After a year of this, I was diagnosed with severe anemia. It was so low that the doctor wanted to schedule a battery of tests. The doctor was convinced I was bleeding internally or had developed cancer. Turns out a mostly vegetarian diet with no significant protein- or iron-rich foods will do that to you. I’m much better now, but I still don’t cook as I used to.

I understand more now how some people can die of a broken heart.

— Alice Masters, Victoria, Texas

I lost 30 pounds in five months, and had been in shape before that. People told me I was too thin and not to lose any more weight.

In retrospect, I couldn’t adapt to the new life, having been married to a woman who loved to cook and plan. I simply wasn’t eating enough and didn’t want to cook.

I am now maintaining my weight by going to a local diner and eating a second takeout meal. My fridge is always empty.

— Joe Sage, Grand Haven, Mich.

Finding comfort in others’ stories

I thought I was the only one who suffered this way. I can manage a meal out by myself, but four years after losing my husband, I am still unable to eat a meal in my dining room alone.

I will get takeout or cook something quick and easy and eat standing up in the kitchen. My major food groups seem to be peanut butter, pistachios, popcorn and yogurt.

Cooking used to be my favorite activity. So it seems like a double loss.

— Carole Goldfield, New York City

It has been only six weeks, and I forget how short a period it has been since his death. I admonish myself when I am lethargic and sad, then remember, “This is only Oct. 29.”

It is a comfort to read that others resort to junk-food eating for weeks after the loss. This has been a real struggle. Food — eating — was such an issue during the last two months of his life, trying to get him to eat something, anything.

And now, I am so alone.

Everyone has gone back to work and is propelled by the demands of daily living — having babies, preparing for exhibits, working. There is always an undercurrent of unstated criticism: Get on with your life. You should be over it.

— Katherine Gaskins, Columbus, Ohio

An empty dining table

There’s nothing more lonely than sitting down with a Sunday roast with all the trimmings by yourself.

— Eric Bubb, Dorset, England

Dinners at home are hard, tough and jarring reminders of what I have lost. I find more and more that I eat a really good breakfast, a late lunch and a small dinner. Sometimes it’s yogurt and fruit, sometimes it’s leftovers from lunch, sometimes it’s just an appetizer and a glass of wine.

I find I can’t eat dinner alone at the dining table. So it’s on the couch, in the living room in front of the 6:30 p.m. news. My daughter asked me how long I’m going to do that and I said, “I guess until I spill something that takes a long time to clean up, it’s just going to be me and David Muir.”

— Karin Kemp, Matthews, N.C.

I’ve often wondered what happened to me that caused me, two months after my husband’s death, to decide to cook supper. I had been living off cereal for the most part before.

I cooked our favorite foods, set the table for two and, when the food was done, took both plates and filled them up.

I sat down, looked at his empty seat and realized what I had just done.

I think that the shock of that moment made me realize that from that time on, I had to become used to an empty chair in front of me.

— Marilyn Irlbacher, Nashua, N.H.

Divorce brings its own grief

I’m not a widow, just divorced. I did a lot of the cooking in our 27-year debacle.

I worked as a chef, and almost five years after she left, I still don’t care about making myself a fabulous meal. Yet I compulsively save recipes in The Times’s Cooking section, thinking: “That sounds good. Maybe I’ll make that someday,” as I eat a bowl of Cheerios.

— David D. Williams, Hopedale, Mass.

Solace in the kitchen

I lost both my husband and my son within 12 days of each other to two different cancers. My reaction to the enormous grief was to eat myself senseless, searching for comfort with a fork. When I came back to consciousness, I had gained a lot of weight and had not found comfort.

Yes, certain shopping reminds me of my husband’s food favorites. This feeling lingers. But I faced a “me” problem: how to regain and reshape myself. My lifetime love of cooking gave that back to me. I missed grocery shopping, yearned for shopping at the local farmsteads, missed scanning recipes.

— Rona Smith, New York

I found cooking and eating by myself liberating when, after 30 years of marriage, I divorced a hypercritical man who ate to live rather than living to eat.

I rediscovered my love of cooking and having meals free of tension. I cook exactly what I want, when I want and choose where I eat. The joy of living has returned.

— Barbara Kumar, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The warmth of friends

After my wife died, a close friend and his wife (empty nesters) adjusted their schedule so that two evenings during the week I went over, with an offering of mine, too, for a meal with them.

It helped that they live only a few minutes’ drive from my home and that our families had grown together for decades. Still, the commitment to change one’s (and one’s spouse’s, too!) lifestyle to accommodate, and to rescue from a state of paralysis, a grieving person is as noble as it gets. It will take me many lives to repay society for the debt of gratitude I carry.

— Ram Rao, Dallas

I hated going to the grocery store after his death, and the sight of a pile of pineapples — which he loved — can still bring me to the brink of tears.

My salvation in the first few years of widowhood was the kindness of a couple who were our closest friends. They invited me for supper randomly about once a week. I arrived at about 6 and left at about 9 to avoid outstaying my welcome.

The suppers weren’t “dinner parties” — they were sharing family meals.

— Malinda Conner, Twickenham, England

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