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  • Clare Backhouse

Comfort in Winter

Last month, the only thing I could write about was my father; the blog post seemed almost to write itself.

And then I was overwhelmed by the kind and thoughtful messages many of you sent.

Thank you.

Still now, however, it feels too soon to put up the piece that I had had ready to go back in November.

And although I will indeed return to vegetables and science next month, today seemed the perfect moment to talk about comfort.

Even without a bereavement, most of us understandably desire greater comfort at this time of the year. We seek consolation for politics, the post-Christmas slump, health, finances, relationships, resolutions, or just the weather itself.

I am so grateful that my father died in winter. Selfishly, it's as though the bleak season helps the grief come out. The skeletal trees, the dark mornings, the sludgy ground: my feelings often appear perfectly congruent with the natural world.

Yet, oddly, I’ve been thinking about whether mourning and sadness may actually be better for us than we thought.

To mourn, is to allow oneself to be sad about the loss of someone or something precious. I say, ‘allow’ oneself to be sad. For me, this has been the crucial discovery: to allow space, time and energy to experience and release sadness. To let it out, even when it hits at inconvenient moments.

Some years ago, I suffered the consequences of not ‘allowing’ mourning at all.

When my father very first had a major stroke some years ago, his life changed utterly. So much of what we knew of him was lost, even if his essential love remained. To me, it felt like half a death.

But I did not realise that mourning was appropriate and in order at that point. There was no social framework which hinted that I could, or should, be making allowances for sadness after a mere parental stroke. I hadn't grasped that ‘it’s OK not to be OK’.

I cried sometimes, but all I knew to do was keep calm, stay cheerful, and get back to work.

So of course, without mourning, loss and sadness were not attended to. Without really noticing what I was doing at first, I began to eat chocolate in a big way. A very big way.

The NHS recommends that adults daily consume no more than 30 grams of ‘free’ sugars. I was eating 100g of chocolate every day, but not the ‘good’, organic, 85% cocoa chocolate. I was eating milk chocolate, a well-known brand which contains 56 grams of sugar per 100g.

So I was consuming almost twice the maximum recommended amount of sugar, every single day. (And I should mention that even the NHS 30g sugar limit is, in many experts’ opinion, still too high.)

This was all before I started training for nutrition, so it actually came as a surprise when after a few months I became really quite ill. The combination of high stress, high sugar (which is known to be inflammatory), and emotional repression was a perfect recipe for physical dis-ease.

But my lesson was not just in nutrition, it was in emotional regulation, which I had no idea could relate directly to digestion and health.

First of all, what I didn’t realise then, is that you cannot receive comfort for something you haven’t even acknowledged properly. Thus, attempts at getting comfort – whether via sugar or whatever else – go wasted. They don’t comfort the sorrow, because they function simply as methods to cope-and-carry-on, to numb the pain of un-grieved grief.

I wish now that I could go back to my past self, and tell her that it was time to grieve. That all loss requires mourning.

Secondly, I didn’t realise that letting my feelings out, especially talking about them and expressing them, was a key plank in basic physical as well as mental health.

Psychoneuroimmunology (I love this word) is beginning to map out the concrete physiology of much of what used to be called ‘psychosomatic’.

Both bereavement specifically, and low-level depression generally, when not well-supported, have been found to produce in people higher levels of inflammatory markers and immune signalling proteins, which can in turn produce all sorts of further physical complications, for instance cardio-vascular disease or respiratory diseases.

So now I am letting it all hang out, all the mourning.

Strangely, it’s taken me until now to experience just how effective simple habits are, in releasing sadness and stress. I’ve become shameless in talking about my father to people and expressing my feelings. Taking walks in the daylight each day, ideally with friends, has become essential. Writing in my journal ensures that any last things don’t get bottled up at the end of the day. I also use it to write down what I’m thankful for. (I want to maintain balance!)

I have decided to be kind to myself, instead of internally tell myself off when little tasks sometimes feel too much. I am a little messier, perhaps a little less organised, but I have decided to be OK with that.

I unashamedly lean on the support of my nearest and dearest. (Endless scientific studies demonstrate the importance of social contact for human flourishing.) I collect hugs from all willing donors. Nutritionist Amelia Freer’s list of ‘non-food treats’ are a relevant resource!

At the same time, my nutritional therapy practice is a delight; it is good to focus on the needs of someone else. Losing myself in pathologies and mechanisms-of-action remains immensely satisfying. Collaborating with a client on their health plan is, to me, intrinsically joyful. It remains an absolute delight when someone says, as they did this week, that they can’t find any health problems any more.

But the way I’m approaching work has already shifted a little, more inclusive of the impact of straightforward emotional regulation and human connection. The most perfect diet will fail if high stress ramps up cortisol and ruins digestion. The cleverest health plan cannot correct the physical imbalances which may arise from unacknowledged trauma. Nutritionally, sometimes conversation over dinner is as important as the dinner itself.

The simple, free things like relationships, helping people, walking, fresh air, daylight, are the ordinary health bedrock which many of us easily forget about.

And the clichés hold true: it’s OK not to be OK. Stay close to good people. Mourning may linger, but January won’t last forever.

Until next month,

To your best of health, Clare

Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT, Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC

Consultations in London, in West Sussex, and online

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