Fresh, healthy meals: Cooking groups are helping men cope with loss


Marx (right), a professional chef, giving Sven advice on how best to fry food at the monthly cooking group for grieving widowers. Photos: Philipp Schulze/dpa

The tremor in his voice shows how hard it is for Jorg to talk about the loss of his partner who died a few months ago after 25 years together.

He has just joined a cooking group that meets regularly in a school building in a northern German city, created for widowers.

"What else is there for me to do, otherwise I'd be sitting at home," says Jorg, 60, as he stirs a pot of rice pudding to prevent it from burning.

Guiding the men's efforts, Winfried Marx provides valuable tips throughout the evening. The group, in the city of Luneburg, allows members to meet others who have suffered similar losses.

After his partner died, Jorg started seeing a psychologist to deal with his grief. He also has a large calendar at home where he writes a short message to his loved one each day.

At the group, the meals are straightforward, so as not to create additional stress. The dishes are made from ingredients that are mostly regional and seasonal.

On this summer night, Jorg and his fellow cooks are making deep-fried breaded feta, accompanied by chard, broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes.

Besides providing a welcome distraction, the group aims to teach the men to take proper care of themselves rather than just heating up convenience meals, says Marx, who just took on the group when a cook retired after a decade.

Up to eight people come to each session in gatherings that also focus on community and exchanging ideas, says Marx, who also volunteers as a grief counsellor.Rainer preparing salad in the cooking group.Rainer preparing salad in the cooking group.

A trained cook himself, his focus is not on fancy cuisine but creating a space for the participants to gradually come to terms with their feelings and their new reality.

"We are very untrained when it comes to death. It's a lot about listening," he says.

Rainer, 79, has attended almost every meeting in the past four years.

"The main thing is being with other people," he says, while carefully placing chard leaves on salad plates."I know people who completely shut themselves off. That means they are approaching depression," he says.

It isn't easy to accept help after a loss, he says, recalling how isolated he felt by some of the brisk offers people made when his wife died.

He thought about getting a dog for company instead, Rainer says, but twice came home from the shelter empty-handed, realising it wasn't the right solution.

It's completely understandable if people decide to start a new relationship after a loss, according to Rainer, as everyone needs companionship.

"That's actually the way to go," he says, although it is not for him, however.Sven, 59, already knows how to cook, but feels the lack of "ideas and recipes to exchange", he says.

Meanwhile Sigfried, 87, learned how to cook from his wife during the last two years of her life, with her directing his moves in the kitchen from her wheelchair.

Despite coming to the group for two years, Sigfried still wants to improve and often asks Marx for tips. He also values the chatter and the shared group activity.

"I am still capable of learning," he says while leaning on his walking stick. He recently became a great-grandfather and finds his children and grandchildren have given him new energy to face life.

"Now I feel the need to stay in the world for a few more days."There are similar groups around the world, with many in Germany guided by professional cooks and trained grief counsellors.

"We also have a grief cafe but it's mostly attended by women," says coordinator Andrea Halbmann-Merz from the hospice that offers the meetings.

She says men tend to be more open to the cooking classes, as that gives them something concrete to do. But talking, particularly about grief, soon becomes just as important, in her experience.

"Men are sometimes hard to reach," says Rosemarie Fischer who works for the state of Lower Saxony in the department for hospice work and palliative care.

They often feel more inhibited which prevents them from approaching others who are struggling in similar situations, she says.

Now, more and more attention is focused on the issue, leading to a broader range of activities. At hospices, Fischer says cooking courses designed for men, or art classes, are especially important among the programmes on offer. – dpa

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