Coping with Grief at Thanksgiving

The turkey is hot out of the oven, the potatoes are mashed, and 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. A piece is missing in our lives, yet 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 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.

Why Thanksgiving Can Be Especially Tough

Thanksgiving and other holidays are full of traditions that connect us to our loved ones and allow us to relax and enjoy the comfort of our families and friends.

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 variety of reasons.

It was a loved one's favorite holiday

Good food, comfy pants, and leftovers to last through the week make Thanksgiving a favorite holiday for many people. It’s a celebration that crosses religions and ethnicities to bring Americans together.

But if the person who passed away loved Thanksgiving and did many of the things that made it memorable for family and friends each year, their absence can make the holiday hurt that much more.

Whether it’s an aunt who always enjoyed cooking the turkey or a grandfather who put his heart into making homemade cranberry sauce, the missing love for the holiday is easy to recognize when the deceased person is no longer there.

Traditions do not feel the same

Most families have certain traditions they observe every year, like waking up early and watching the Macy’s Day parade, watching football in sweats, or running in a turkey trot before the big meal.

However, 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.

For some, carrying on the tradition can be a way to remember and honor their loved ones, while others may find it too difficult to engage in the activity without them. Everyone experiences holiday grief differently, and it’s important to remember that it’s okay to do what feels right for you.

How to Cope 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 is not there.

No matter what you’re feeling this Thanksgiving, it’s important to know that it’s okay to grieve in your own way. Grieving a recent death, or even one that happened a while back, is completely normal and acceptable.

If you need help finding ways to create space for yourself to grieve your loved one this Thanksgiving, we’ve compiled a list of ideas that may help. 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, it’s natural to 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 for everything to return to normal.

By giving yourself and others permission to share stories and favorite memories about your loved one, you can connect to their life while beginning the process of adjusting to the holidays without them by your side.

Talking about how you are feeling to friends and family allows them to share in your experience and invites them to express their feelings as well. While this may bring up difficult emotions, there’s no better time to explore your feelings than when you’re surrounded by people who love you and want to support you through your grief.

Write down your thoughts

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, diary, or in the form of a letter to your loved one. Allowing yourself to feel and getting your thoughts outside of your head can help lift some of the weight off your shoulders. 

Reminisce over old photos.

There’s no better time than the holidays to bring out old photos of family and reminisce about old times.

Digging up the old photo albums and asking other family members to do the same can help you remember all the joyful times you spent with your deceased loved one. You can 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 remarkable qualities of your loved one. 

Continue Thanksgiving traditions

While some traditions may be difficult to continue without your loved one, try identifying one or two that you can use to honor them moving forward. 

Or, if the tradition is too difficult for you to carry out, that’s OK too. Either scrap it or ask someone else to perform 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.

Seek out professional support

If Thanksgiving feels overwhelming, know that you’re not alone. There are many grief support groups all over the country that can be an excellent source of help during the holidays.

You’ll find others who are grieving and may gain comfort by freely talking to people outside of your immediate friends and family.

If you’d like more one-on-one guidance, finding a grief therapist in your area who specializes in helping people through this tough time in life is a great option.

Take time for yourself

Whether it’s stepping outside to get some air and reflect after dinner or deciding to stay home altogether 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, be sure to allow yourself as much time as you need to absorb and process what 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 forgiving of yourself as you welcome a new identity.

Ways 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 a variety of ways to 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.

You may also choose to begin dinner with a toast or a few words honoring your loved one. This can help proactively start a conversation and allow your family and friends to get over some of the awkwardness they may be feeling, giving them a chance to support you. 

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 do, replicating your loved one’s favorite dish or activity can be a great way to honor them this Thanksgiving.

Cooking one of your loved one’s recipes is a powerful way to connect with them by performing the same actions they did in past holidays, bringing you closer to them and allowing you to reflect upon their experiences.

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 help you feel better. It can help transform the grief you’re experiencing into joy for others.

Visit their grave or a place they found special

Getting out of the house and visiting a place your loved one enjoyed or connected to is another way to use the holiday experience to get closer to the remarkable life they lived.

Whether you visit their grave alone or go for a walk in the park you used to walk in together, finding a place they found special and spending some time there will help you get some fresh air and connect to their memory.

You’re Not Alone

Whether or not you attempt any of the suggestions we’ve made in this article 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 a part of life. It is not something to hide from but rather a universal experience to embrace and honor. Engage with your grief in a conscious and meaningful way, but don’t forget to turn back toward the present and create new, joyful memories with those in your life. After all, Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful not only for those connections made and lost but also for those we continue to make and cherish.