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The Role of Food at the End of Life – and Before

I’d planned to write about something else today. Then I found out last week that my friend’s mom had gone into hospice. And when I was visiting at the hospice center, I flipped through an information booklet and saw a section about food.

The part that stood out for me was: “We eat to live. When a body is preparing to die, it is perfectly natural that eating should stop. This is one of the hardest concepts for a family to accept.”

I remember this first-hand. When Mom was nearing the end, Dad brought some raspberry pie, which was what she normally had on her birthday. But since she was declining so fast, he brought it a couple of days early, on their anniversary. Even then, all she could manage was a taste of the raspberry filling.

It was so difficult to see that, how she couldn’t even enjoy one of her favorite foods.

But I think what really made this so hard was knowing it meant the end was close. As this website points out: “The body of a person who has a life-limiting illness is in the process of shutting down. They no longer require a great deal of nutrients or calories to convert to energy.”

“Life-limiting” is a gentle way of saying “terminal,” but it means the same thing. And it’s usually going to be challenging for families to accept that their loved one’s life is limited.

No more hunger

Difficult as all this is, what I found helpful is realizing that the dying person won’t be hungry at this stage. Knowing that makes me feel a little better about them not eating, even if I can’t quite grasp going for that long without food and not wanting to eat.

But unlike my friend who was in the hospital and couldn’t wait to start eating again, those in hospice aren’t recovering, and that makes a big difference.

Food is energy

I also found this a good reminder of the fundamental point of eating, something we can forget because of all the other ways we use food.

It gives us energy.

You might notice this most clearly if you get to the point of being so hungry that your energy plummets. Have you ever experienced this? You find that you can’t even focus, and you don’t want to do much of anything except maybe take a nap.

And then, if you have something to eat, you perk up. It’s fascinating to observe that cause and effect in myself.

I also think the energy component was why it hurt to see Mom not eating. Before, she had been such an active, vital person. And it was tempting to think that maybe if she just ate some of her favorite foods, she’d be that person again.

But as the hospice information points out, her body no longer needed that energy.

Unfortunately, Mom didn’t have hospice, so I didn’t have any of this information at the time. I don’t know if it would have made things easier, but it might have helped me articulate some of my thoughts and feelings.

We eat to live

And finally, despite what the information says, the reality is that we don’t just eat to live. We use food for so many other reasons. We eat to socialize… celebrate… comfort ourselves… and much more.

And yet – isn’t this all part of living?

It makes me think of a song called “Lived a Life” by Enter the Haggis. It includes these lyrics: “If your body’s sore it’s ‘cause you’ve done something… /if your heart is worn it’s ‘cause you’ve loved someone/ and when you die you’ve lived a life.”

In order to even get to the point of celebrating, socializing, or comforting ourselves, we need to have lived. And we can’t do that without food.

Thinking about this actually brings me some comfort. Because both Mom and my friend’s mom did live a life. Sometimes their bodies were sore, and sometimes their hearts were worn, but they also had good times. They had children and grandchildren they loved, they did work where they were well-regarded, they were kind and caring. Their lives may not have turned out quite as expected, or been as long as the rest of us would like…

But they lived.

What will you do with your energy?

It’s impossible for me not to reflect on my own life in these situations, to consider how I’ve spent my energy. To wonder if I’ve lived.

At the time of Mom’s death, I couldn’t have said “yes” as loudly as I’d have liked. Of course, I was only 23, so I think that’s somewhat to be expected.

But it did highlight what I hadn’t done, things I wanted to do. And I made it my priority to do them.

In the nearly 19 years since then, I’ve spent my energy in a lot of ways. Some of it hasn’t been to the best use – for example, I can think of many failed dating attempts that I wish I could take back.

But I climbed Mt. Katahdin. I published a book. I’ve had some poetry published. I’ve been to so many beautiful places, including New Zealand, where Mom had always wanted to go.

I’ve improved my relationship with Dad. I’ve helped others through my mindful eating work and my volunteer activities. For over 30 years now, I’ve stayed connected with my friend who lost her mom.

I, too, have now lived a life.

I’m not saying I’m ready to stop, but I feel like in the worst-case scenario, I wouldn’t regret things I haven’t done. And that’s helpful to know.

What about you? What do you love spending your energy on? What do you want to use it for moving forward?

Whatever your plans, I hope you’re finding ways to live the life you want, and to enjoy the foods that give you the energy for that life.

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