How to Survive Thanksgiving Day Grief

Thanksgiving Day can feel particularly cruel to those mourning the death of a loved one. Not only can the bereaved find it difficult to feel appreciative during this annual time of giving thanks, but the traditions, rituals, and gatherings we often associate with the holiday also tend to emphasize the fact that a beloved family member or friend is not present and compound our feelings of loss. This article offers five tips to help you cope with the Thanksgiving Day holiday if you're grieving the death of a loved one.

Thanksgiving dinner spread out on a table
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Permit Yourself to Say No

For many years, you and your family have looked forward to gathering at your house on Thanksgiving Day. But this year, the thought of doing all of the shopping, cooking a turkey and all of the trimmings, setting the table and decorating your home all by yourself feels overwhelming. Or perhaps you've traditionally contributed a dish to the meal hosted by another family member or friend, but this year your heart just isn't in it. While the thought of altering your Thanksgiving holiday routine might feel difficult, you need to determine how much responsibility you feel comfortable taking on right now and then clearly communicate that to your family members and friends. Ask yourself if you just want help with a particular task or if you'd prefer someone else take on the responsibilities entirely this year. Remind yourself that it's okay to say "no" as you adjust to life after loss and that those who love you will understand.

Let It Go

Most of us carry a mental picture of what the Thanksgiving Day holiday should look like. Books, magazines, movies, television commercials, and even our childhood memories often fuel this idealization by creating an image of what a "perfect" Thanksgiving Day celebration entails. This can create a lot of pressure, which is another source of stress you don't need to deal with right now. Therefore, give yourself a pass this Thanksgiving by accepting things as they are, even if they fall short of the Norman Rockwell image in your head. Is the turkey a little dry this year? Add some more gravy. Can't muster the energy to host a full sit-down dinner at the table? Set up a buffet and let people serve themselves. Whatever comes up, repeat to yourself: "Just let it go." Again, those who love you will understand.

Take Control of Your Fear

Often, those mourning a death wonder, "How can I avoid thinking about him/her during the Thanksgiving holiday?" The truth is that you can't—so why even try? Instead of letting the fear that you'll start remembering your loved one and feeling sad dictate your holiday, empower yourself by incorporating his or her memory into your Thanksgiving plans. For example, place a favorite photograph of your loved one and a lit candle in a quiet spot that signifies his or her presence in your hearts throughout the day. Did your beloved enjoy a particular holiday food? Then make sure you serve it in his or her honor. If you feel up to it, ask your family to share their favorite memories of your loved one before or after the meal. It is not uncommon for families to set a place for a departed loved one at the table—the empty chair serving as a profound visual reminder of your loved one's presence in your hearts and minds. After the meal (assuming the tryptophan in the turkey hasn't made you sleepy), you might visit the cemetery, memorial site, or some other place significant in the life of your loved one as a family.

Start Fresh

The Thanksgiving traditions we form with our family members and friends through the years can often feel just as confining as the bars of a prison. Baking that special Thanksgiving Day pie from scratch, getting up early/staying out late to shop on Black Friday, putting up the holiday lights and decorations, etc., might be interwoven with your happiest Thanksgiving memories, but ask yourself if a particular tradition will really bring you joy this year or if you just feel pressure to do something because you've always done it this way and others expect it. If the latter, then consider establishing a new traditionjust for this yearthat fits with your energy and mood. Consider purchasing a tasty fresh or frozen pie this year, shopping for gifts online, or asking a family member or friend to put up your lights and decorations. Remember, you can always resume your original tradition down the road if you'd like, but you might discover that a new tradition is just as fulfilling.

Know Your Limits

Finally, and perhaps most important, however you proactively decide to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year, you should determine and know your limits ahead of time. For example, if you traditionally spend the entire day at the home of a family member or friend but don't think you'll feel up to it this year, then it's perfectly acceptable to tell the host/hostess beforehand that you want/need to leave by a certain time. If you usually accept several invitations to visit the Thanksgiving celebrations of various family members, friends, neighbors, etc., but don't think you'll have enough energy for all of them this year, then only agree to attend those you want to attend—particularly the gatherings where you think you will feel comfortable in your grief and receive support. And if you wish to limit your social activity simply because you would like to be alone, then know that this is entirely normal, too. Once again, anyone who truly loves you and knows the pain you're dealing with will understand.

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