Johnathan Thomas, MBA, PhD, D.DIV
The turkey is hot out of the oven, potatoes are mashed, the table is set. You’re surrounded by loved ones at Thanksgiving dinner, and yet you somehow feel empty inside.
A once joyous time filled with laughter, good food, and even better memories, now feels like nothing more than a trigger to miss the one who’s so painfully not there.
When we enter the holiday season grieving the loss of a loved one, everything feels different, flipped upside down. A piece is missing, and we’re often expected to go on living like everything is normal.
Bereavement is heavy and can easily become too much to carry alone when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays approach.
As Megan Devine explains in her book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK:
“The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can’t be cheered out of. You don’t need solutions. You don’t need to move on from your grief.
You need someone to see your grief, to acknowledge it. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
So, if you’re heading into the Thanksgiving meal missing a loved one who’s recently passed away, know that you’re not alone and it’s totally okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.
A. Reasons Thanksgiving Can Be Tough
Thanksgiving and other holidays are embedded in traditions – the ultimate routines – that connect us to our loved ones and allow us to relax.
When someone in our lives passes away, whether expected or unexpected, the memories stay with us, yet the routines that kept us grounded get thrown up to the wind.
Thanksgiving can be especially tough for those going through grief for a handful of reasons.
1. It was a loved one’s favorite holiday.
Good food, comfy pants, and leftovers to last through the week make Thanksgiving dinner and break a favorite holiday for many people. It’s a holiday that crosses religions and ethnicities to bring people together.
If the person who passed away loved Thanksgiving and did things to make it memorable for family and friends, them not being there makes it hurt that much more.
Whether it’s an aunt who always enjoyed cooked the turkey or a grandfather who put his heart into making the homemade cranberry sauce, the missing love for the holiday is easy to recognize when the passed person is no longer there.
This can make it exceptionally hard for those left grieving to enjoy the big Thanksgiving Day feast without them.
2. Traditions do not feel the same.
Whether it’s waking up early and watching the Macy’s Day parade, watching football in sweats, or running in a turkey trot before the big meal, families often have traditions during Thanksgiving.
These traditions may feel difficult to do without the energy of the missing loved one. The traditions will likely feel different for everyone involved and some people in the family may not know how to handle their emotions without the loved one present.
It’s not uncommon for grieving people to protest carrying on the tradition without their loved one present, while others may want to carry on the tradition in their honor. Everyone experiences holiday grief differently, and that’s OK.
3. Pressure to live up to their legacy.
Whether it’s continuing on a big get together with all of the extended family members or trying to replicate the exact meal just like mom used to make, in many instances family members feel pressured to do the things the loved one who passed did during the holidays.
Many people want to please people in the way their loved one did and will try to do whatever it takes to ensure they live up to the legacy.
This can often leave a grieving person running around, potentially avoiding the pain of grief while family is around, and then breaking down when everyone finally leaves, right when they may need someone’s comfort the most.
B. Coping With Grief During Thanksgiving
While Thanksgiving is a time of year to be thankful for what you have, it can be difficult to tap into positive thoughts when all you can think about is your loved one not there.
No matter what you’re feeling this Thanksgiving, it’s important to know that it’s okay to grieve. Grieving a recent death, or even one that happened a while back, is completely normal and acceptable.
“Holding the space is crucial, and exactly what we are missing. To hold the space is to create a ring of safety around the family and friends of the dead, providing a place where they can grieve openly and honestly, without fear of being judged.” ― Caitlin Doughty.
Now, if you’re looking for ideas for how you can create space to grieve your loved one this Thanksgiving, we’ve compiled a list of ideas that you can choose from. While you certainly don’t have to try all of them, it may help to choose one or two ideas that feel right for you and add them to your Thanksgiving plans.
Talk about your loved one.
When someone you love passes away, you may very well want to acknowledge and honor the person during Thanksgiving. After all, you’re used to spending the holidays together and you’d love nothing more than everything to return to normal.
By giving yourself and others permission to share stories and favorite memories about your loved one, you can find connection to their life while beginning the process of adjusting to the holidays without them by your side.
Talk about how you are feeling to friends and family and allow them to share in response. While this may bring up emotions, you’re surrounded by people that love you and want to support you through your grief.
Waking up on Thanksgiving morning and realizing you no longer have your loved one with you to share in the experience can be a sobering and emotional time.
Instead of bottling what you’re thinking and feeling inside, try writing it all down in a journal or as a letter to your loved one.
Allowing yourself to feel and getting it outside of your head can help lift some of the weight off of your shoulders. And if you need to cry while you’re writing, let it out with no shame. This time is for you and will help you process what you’re feeling as you navigate the day.
Reminisce over old photos.
There’s no better time than the holidays to bring out old photos of family, especially ones of your passed loved one.
Dig up the old photo albums and ask other family members to do the same. Maybe you even start a shared digital album and ask friends and family to contribute photos that include your loved one.
As you go through the photos, either alone or with family and friends, try to remember the stories behind the photos and point out the great qualities of your loved one. Retell jokes, laugh, cry, and simply feel whatever surfaces, knowing that a range of emotions are common when going through the grieving process.
Continue Thanksgiving traditions.
While some traditions may be difficult to continue without your loved one, try identifying one that you can use to honor them moving forward. This will help you find ways to continue on in the spirit of your loved one.
If the tradition is too difficult for you to carry out this year, that’s OK too. Either scrap it or ask someone else to carry out the holiday routine for this year. There will always be an opportunity to pick it back up in the following years.
Start new Thanksgiving traditions.
As families shrink and grow throughout the decades, some traditions end, and new ones begin. If the old traditions are too much to handle or if you simply want to find a way to honor your loved one, consider starting a new tradition.
Maybe this year you ask everyone to contribute written compliments for everyone at the table, or you even give your leftovers to the homeless.
Whatever new tradition you think of, know that it’s something you can choose to carry on moving forward or use as a one-time tradition. No pressure.
Talk to a support group or therapist.
If Thanksgiving is feeling overwhelming, know that you’re not alone. There are grief support groups all over the country that can be great to attend during the holidays.
You’ll find others who are going through grief and may find comfort in talking to people outside of your friends and family.
If you’d like more one-on-one guidance, finding a grief counselor who specializes in helping people through this tough time in life is a great option.
If needed, take time for yourself.
Whether it’s stepping outside to get some air and reflect after dinner or deciding to stay home this Thanksgiving, know that you have the option to create space for yourself to feel exactly what you’re feeling. Self-care is crucial while grieving.
As the years go on, you may need less time to yourself to process everything that’s going on. However, in the beginning allow yourself as much time as needed to sit in whatever you’re feeling.
If you’ve been a caretaker for your loved one who passed, the holidays will likely be much different. You won’t be running around taking care of another person and shuffling your needs to the side. You may even feel relief this Thanksgiving, and that’s very normal. Allow yourself to feel whatever surfaces. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you welcome a new identity.
C. Ideas to Honor a Person You Loved on Thanksgiving
While Thanksgiving will likely be very difficult this year for anyone who’s recently lost someone dear to them, there are ways to still honor the tradition of gratitude and warmth with your loved one in mind.
Leave an empty chair and place setting.
While this may intensify the emotions of grief for some, leaving an empty chair, place setting, or candle is a great way to allow the memory of your loved one to live on at the Thanksgiving meal this year.
It may be a good idea to check with the host ahead of time and ask if it would be okay to leave a seat for your loved one.
By starting dinner with a few words honoring your loved one, you can proactively start a conversation allowing your family and friends to get over some of the awkwardness they may be feeling around how to handle the situation. They want to be supportive; they likely just don’t know how to be.
Do a toast or Thanksgiving prayer.
As you get ready to dig into your Thanksgiving feast this year, ask to give a toast or Thanksgiving prayer. Use this time to honor your loved one, sending them any message you want them and your family to hear.
If others in the family have passed away, it may be nice to bring them up in your toast as well to honor all who’ve made an impact on the people at the table.
Cook their favorite dish.
Whether it’s bringing the apple pie as dessert to your aunt’s house like your husband always did or playing the piano once everyone is too stuffed to move like your dad used to play, replicating your loved one’s favorite dish or activity can be a great way to honor them this Thanksgiving.
Take the time to tell a joke or recount a memory as you recognize that the dish was their favorite. Savor every smell and bite for them.
Donate food or money to a charity in their name.
Whether you donate to their favorite cause or adopt a family in need of a Thanksgiving meal, giving to those less fortunate during a time of grief can be a great way to connect to your loved one and also help you feel better.
Do a Thanksgiving run or walk.
Many communities hold fundraising turkey trots during the Thanksgiving holiday, so you can consider participating in their honor. Invite your family and any of your loved one’s friends to join you for the race.
The endorphins you’ll get from the race along with the extra movement will help you feel better and get nice and hungry for the Thanksgiving meal.
Create a special Thanksgiving centerpiece.
Another option is to order a special flower arrangement or create your own Thanksgiving centerpiece with photos of your loved one and other related memorabilia.
This will serve as a beautiful visual reminder of the love you share for your passed loved one.
Watch something they loved.
If your loved one enjoyed watching a certain movie or even just kicking back and enjoying a game of football, partaking in these activities can help you feel closer to them when they are no longer there.
Whether you ask your family to join you in the activity or wait to be alone, watching something your loved one enjoyed is something that may bring you great peace, or opportunity to cry your eyes out this holiday.
Visit their grave or a place they found special.
Getting out of the house and getting a strong physical connection with your loved one is another option for this Thanksgiving.
Whether you visit their grave alone or go for a walk in the park you used to walk in together, finding whatever spot you know they’d find special and spending some time there will help you get some fresh air and connect to their memory.
While we’ve outlined options for you to try as you navigate grief during Thanksgiving this year, we hope you know that you’re not alone. This year’s holiday season will likely be difficult and full of conflicting emotions, but it will get better. Grief is not something to hide or run from, but rather something to embrace and honor. Do this in the most direct and meaningful way possible, and then turn your attention back to the present, and try to create new joyful memories.
So, this year as you honor your loved one, remember that Thanksgiving is all about finding what we are thankful for in life. Be thankful for the time, love, and memories you shared with your loved one.
Take the love, strength, and gratitude surrounding you this Thanksgiving into the rest of our days as you adjust to a new normal. It will get easier.