Thanksgiving is all about family. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, culture, race, economic bracket, or region of the country, celebrating Thanksgiving is a family tradition across the U.S. Each year, the vast majority of us gather together with our family around a dining room table, eat favorite foods, and share memories and loving connection. But celebrating Thanksgiving when you’re missing a loved one can feel almost impossible.
It can feel particularly difficult if it’s the first Thanksgiving holiday since your loved one died. That’s my situation this year. My 87 year-old mother died in June, four years to the month after my father passed. So I’m an orphan of sorts now, even though I’m an adult and have siblings and my own family. Just how does an orphan celebrate a family-focused holiday like Thanksgiving? Missing my mother and father feels like it’s squeezing the celebrating out of Thanksgiving.
How To Cope with Grief During the Holidays
So what to do? How do you go about celebrating Thanksgiving when you’re missing a loved one? Here are 8 tips that can help. Try one or a few and see how taking action can move your grief and still make room for celebrating the holiday.
1. Name the Elephant.
Many people try to avoid the pain through not mentioning the loved one who has died. But avoidance is seldom a good strategy because you have to go through the pain in order to heal. So it is better to “name the elephant in the room.” If you acknowledge the grief and loss directly, you don’t have to expend energy suppressing grief or worrying that others will mention your loved one.
2. Choose How To Remember Your Loved One At Your Celebration.
By choosing how you want to remember your missing loved one at your Thanksgiving celebration, you choose how to acknowledge them and grieve the loss. This helps you regain some of your sense of control – something that death disrupts.
For example, when my sister-in-law-died of breast cancer in October of 2007, prior to the family gathering for Thanksgiving we contacted family members. We asked each person to bring an ornament that reminded them of her to decorate the first Christmas tree in the newly finished home in which she never got to live. It was bittersweet, but including her in our celebration was also heart-warming. Even though we were missing a loved one, by choosing how to remember her at our celebration, we underscored that she would not be forgotten.
3. Get Group Support.
There’s something healing about being with others who are going through the same thing. This “universality” helps normalize your experience. And there is relief in not having to explain your circumstance or emotionally hold it together – especially at a time of year when others seem filled with cheer. Many hospices and even hospitals offer time-limited “grief at the holidays” groups. These groups are generally open to all, whether or not hospice services were previously used. GriefShare, a faithbased organization, offers these time-limited groups, as well.
Related Reading: What to Look for When You’re Searching for Grief and Loss Support
4. Consider a Geographic Change For The Celebration.
Many people experiencing grief and loss find comfort in keeping things as consistent as possible with holiday celebrations. Another option is intentionally moving your celebration’s location. Consider a restaurant, a park, or even states or countries away at a vacation location. Making new memories this Thanksgiving can provide comfort and relief.
5. Keep Your Bandwidth in Mind.
Grieving is the process that heals the emotional wound you’ve suffered. This process has physical and emotional aspects. And the healing process takes energy. So you may not have the energy you normally experience to do what you’ve always done for the holiday.
It’s OK to scale back, to pick and choose – or even to skip your celebration (though I strongly recommend considering scaling back before choosing to skip it). Choose lower energy options: have the celebratory meal catered or do potluck, go to a restaurant and a movie with everyone rather than hosting them in your home, etc. Even if you decide to skip the holiday celebration, still make a plan for yourself so you don’t inadvertently intensify your grief.
6. Pay The Love Forward.
When missing a loved on during the holidays, some people choose to have an empty chair at the table to remember their loved one who is not there this year. Another way of memorializing and remembering your loved one is paying their and your love forward. For example, consider inviting to your celebration someone who doesn’t have family with whom to celebrate the holiday. Serving your loved one’s favorite dishes and playing their favorite music not only helps to remember them, it’s also an opportunity to share with your guest memories of who your loved one was. Including another person pays the love forward.
Another way of paying the love forward is choosing to make a charitable donation (financial or in kind) in your loved one’s memory to their favorite charity. If you’ve been struggling with parting with your loved one’s clothing or other personal possessions, donating them at this time of year can make the task a bit easier.
7. Choose Supportive Friends or Relatives Over Stressful Ones.
Know that you can decide how and with whom you spend your time, even if it’s different than “what you’ve always done” at Thanksgiving. People grieve in different ways. Choose to spend more time with those who are supportive and accepting. Limit time with those who tell you what you should be doing or who engage in other stress-inducing behavior.
8. Talk With A Counselor.
It’s normal to feel conflicting emotions at Thanksgiving when you’ve lost a loved one. Sometimes your feelings get magnified at this time of year with its focus on family. All of this can make the holidays tough. If you’ve thought about going to counseling, this is a good time to start.
If you’re in the Chicago area, our qualified therapists are ready to come along side you in your grief. Connect with a counselor in either our Glen Ellyn office or office in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in Chicago. If you’re outside the Chicago area, online directories like Psychology Today can help you find a grief counselor.