When Thanksgiving Feels Empty: Handling Loss and Grief at the Holidays
Thanksgiving can feel particularly harsh to those who are dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Memories of happier holidays surface, and at this annual time of giving thanks, it may seem hard to feel appreciative. The traditions and gatherings we often associate with the holiday emphasize the fact that a beloved family member or friend isn’t present, compounding the feelings of loss. Here are some helpful tips for coping with the Thanksgiving holiday if you're grieving the death of a loved one.
Allow yourself to say no. For many years, you may have celebrated Thanksgiving Day at your house with a big gathering of family and friends. But this year, the thought of doing all of that shopping, cooking a turkey and the trimmings, and cleaning and decorating your home may feel overwhelming. Or perhaps you've traditionally attended a gathering or contributed dishes to the meal hosted by another family member or friend, but this year your heart isn't in it. While the idea of altering your Thanksgiving routine might seem difficult, you need to determine how much responsibility you feel comfortable taking on right now and then communicate it to your family members and friends. Remind yourself that it's okay to say no as you adjust to life after loss and that your loved ones will understand.
Find a strong support system. Spend Thanksgiving with whoever offers you the most moral support, whether that means family members, friends or both. This is the time to take things easy and do what makes you feel comfortable. Surround yourself with those who boost your strength and vitality, and allow yourself to be nurtured by their care.
Forget about perfection. Most of us have a mental picture of what the Thanksgiving holiday ‘should’ look like. Movies, magazines, television commercials and even our own childhood memories often fuel this fantasy by creating an image of what a perfect Thanksgiving Day celebration entails. That can create a lot of pressure and adds another source of unnecessary stress at an already difficult time. Give yourself a pass this Thanksgiving. Breathe deeply, accept things as they are and repeat to yourself, “Just let it go."
Don’t just reserve your compassion for others. Instead of beating yourself up for not feeling grateful this year, try practicing some self-compassion. If you’re feeling lousy, recognize it and acknowledge it. Keep in mind that it’s not a state that will last forever—it’s simply a path you must wind your way through as part of the grieving process. Having compassion for yourself means lovingly accepting yourself and your feelings throughout your grief. Remind yourself that it’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to hurt. Self-compassion is self-love. When practiced, it allows us to become more authentic and accepting of ourselves and others, despite the personal losses we all endure in our lifetimes.
Incorporate memories of your loved one into your Thanksgiving plans. Consider placing a favorite photograph of your loved one in a quiet spot, along with a lit candle, to signify his or her presence in your hearts throughout the day. Did the deceased enjoy a particular holiday food? Whip up a batch of it in his or her honor. You might celebrate your dear departed one by raising a toast to him or her. If you feel up to it, ask your family and friends to share their favorite memories of your loved one before or after the meal. You might also consider visiting the cemetery, memorial site or some other place that was significant in the life of your loved one.
Start new traditions. The Thanksgiving traditions we form over the years can feel just as confining as the bars of a prison. Baking that special Thanksgiving Day pie from scratch and getting up in the wee hours of the morning to shop on Black Friday might be woven with your happiest Thanksgiving memories, but ask yourself if a particular tradition will really bring you joy this year. If you decide that it won’t, consider establishing a new tradition that’s more suitable to your energy and mood. Instead of having Thanksgiving dinner at your house as usual, why not make reservations at a favorite restaurant? You could also cancel the traditional holiday if you prefer and instead volunteer at a soup kitchen, plan a hike, attend a church service, go to a movie or take a mini-vacation. You can always resume your original tradition down the road if you'd like, but you might discover that your new tradition is just as fulfilling.
Find a sense of peace. True wisdom means seeking peace in all situations, especially those in which you cannot change. Attain tranquility by adopting the right mindset, whether it's reminding yourself that your loved one is no longer in pain or that their spiritual presence will forever be felt. Dwell on thoughts that create comfort and serenity and banish those that evoke guilt or regret.
Thanksgiving can be taxing when a loved one is absent from the table, but you aren’t alone in your struggle. It’s a shared challenge for millions around the world who experience a heartfelt void after having lost their spouse, parent, child, sibling or friend. You may be missing your loved one who passed away but you still have your life ahead you. Live it to the fullest and create new, happy memories. If you need additional help dealing with your grief at Thanksgiving or at any time of the year, please reach out to our compassionate staff.
About Vaughn Greene Funeral Services: For more than 20 years, Vaughn Greene Funeral Services has been providing a ministry of care to Baltimore’s African American community. As a leading local, minority- and family-owned provider, we promise to provide our highest level of service and respect to families who entrust us to honor their loved one. For more information, please call us at 410.655.0015 or visit us online at https://vaughncgreene.com/.