By Judy Krasna, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director
Losing a child to an eating disorder is the worst nightmare of every single parent in our community. I am living that nightmare personally. While I don’t hide it, I try to be considerate about the fact that I know it scares the living daylights out of all of you. I am afraid that talking too much about the mortality rate of eating disorders, the risk of suicide, and the loss of my daughter will drive you away from F.E.A.S.T, will rob you of your hope, will cause damage to your already vulnerable psyche, and will undermine your belief in your child’s recovery. That is the last thing that I would ever want to do.
I sincerely believe that eating disorders are treatable illnesses and that recovery is always possible; and with that, I know that people die of eating disorders every day. Two families in our community have lost their daughters recently, and I feel the need to say something about it.
First and foremost, my heart is with the families, and I send my deepest condolences. On one hand, I know what they are going through; on the other hand, I have no idea what they are going through. Each family processes and experiences loss and grief differently. I do know that the death of a child is the worse kind of torture and affects your family in countless ways. You don’t ever recover from a loss of that magnitude, but you can find a way to move forward. Some days are almost normal. Others are filled with an immense sense of sorrow and anguish so profound that you can feel like you are drowning in it.
When my daughter died, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be welcome in the F.E.A.S.T. community or that I wouldn’t be able to contribute anymore. I was scared that no one would want me around because I would be a symbol of failure. I would be a reminder of the worst-case scenario, a daytime version of everyone’s most terrifying nightmare. And as much as I still needed the F.E.A.S.T. community, I would never have stayed had I felt that my presence would harm others.
It was my dear friend and mentor, former F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, who convinced me that I was still welcome at F.E.A.S.T, and that it was the job of the F.E.A.S.T. community to make space for me and for other parents who lost their children, even if my presence made them uncomfortable. That discomfort wasn’t on me.
It pains me greatly to say this, but it is likely that our community will experience more loss. When that happens, we need to be there for the families who are mourning their loved ones. We need to support them, we need to let them know that they are still welcome, we need to embrace them, and we need to pull them in to F.E.A.S.T. by offering them the opportunity to remain engaged and involved to whatever degree they feel is beneficial, if they so wish.
F.E.A.S.T. is all about meeting families where they are. There are members of our community, myself included, whose loved one’s journey may have ended, but the family’s journey is not over. We still need the warmth and support of the community; we still need space within F.E.A.S.T. because it helps us feel connected to our children.
I fully understand how hard it is to hear that someone else’s child lost his/her life to an eating disorder, because it means accepting that everyone with an eating disorder is vulnerable, including your own child. I know how distressing it is to let yourself go there; and yet, if we are to help, support, and include bereaved families in F.E.A.S.T, then there is no other choice.
I have been on both sides of this situation. As the mother of a newly diagnosed daughter, I lived on the Around the Dinner Table forum. I inhaled the wisdom, the information, the guidance, and the advice that experienced parents offered. I felt grounded, connected to others who could understand what I was going through. The ATDT Forum was my lifeline, and I held onto it fervently, until one post “ruined” the forum for me. It was titled “She Died”, and as soon as I read it, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding. Reading about the mortality rate of eating disorders on the internet was not the same as coming in contact with a real mother who lost her daughter. In a total knee-jerk reaction, I immediately closed the forum on my computer, and I didn’t reopen it until 14 years later, when I took this job. I ran scared. The fear was legitimate; but in retrospect, I understand that walking away from F.E.A.S.T. was self-defeating, which is why I sincerely hope that my message doesn’t alienate any parents out there. I realize now that I left a mother who just lost her daughter unsupported. This mom had been using the F.E.A.S.T. community as her support throughout her child’s illness and it only makes sense that she would want to use the same community for support following her daughter’s death. We need to be there.
My perspective now is different, both personally and professionally. I think we need to accept and manage the discomfort of acknowledging, supporting, and embracing bereaved families even though it can be traumatic to face the mortality rate of eating disorders as the loss of a child to a family like yours and not as an abstract statistic. We need to do this because F.E.A.S.T. is an organization dedicated to kindness, because bereaved families need a space within F.E.A.S.T; and most of all, because it’s the right thing to do.
I can’t imagine what my life would be like had there not been space for me at F.E.A.S.T. after my daughter died. I am so grateful to F.E.A.S.T. for making that space for me, for welcoming me back, and for letting me know that I still belonged.
To the families who have lost a child, please know that your pain is our pain, know that F.E.A.S.T. is still here to support you, and know that there will always be space for you here at F.E.A.S.T. You will always belong.