If you celebrate, Thanksgiving Day may be a special moment of the year dedicated to celebrating and acknowledging our gratitude. Thanksgiving can be an especially complicated and difficult time for those who are grieving. For some, Thanksgiving ushers in the beginning of a holiday season that can feel relentless in the way it impacts our emotions.
For so many, Thanksgiving Day brings an added pressure not only to celebrate, but also to feel happy and grateful. This pressure can become overwhelming at times, especially when combined with so many other aspects of the day that can highlight the absence of a person in our life who has died. Thanksgiving foods, decorations, and traditions can be comforting, but they can also be deeply triggering to those grieving a death.
With so many traditions and expectations surrounding Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, the loss of an important person in your life may be felt even more intensely. It’s important to give ourselves permission to do what feels right for ourselves and our families. While it’s good to make plans for coping with grief during this time of year, we also need to remember to be flexible and take care of ourselves. Grief is unique for every individual, and you are the expert on your own grief and what feels right for you.
Here are some tips on how you can help take care of yourself and those close to you during Thanksgiving and during the holiday season to come.
Acknowledge that the holidays may be different this year
Different holiday activities, decorations, and foods may remind you of the person who died and how things will be different without them. Acknowledging your feelings about the holidays can give you and your family a chance to think about certain events or days that might be more difficult for you, and to discuss how you can best support each other.
The anticipation of the day may be more difficult than the day itself. Having a plan ahead of time can help ease some of the anxiety and fear of the unknown. Talk with close family and friends and let them know what you might want or need. Be sure to include the children in your planning, since they are also missing the person who died and may have special holiday activities that would be meaningful to them.
Consider what new & old traditions might be meaningful to you
It may be comforting to participate in holiday traditions you shared with the person who died, but you may also decide you want to take a break from traditions or create new ones. Talk together to see if there are ways to honor the person that feel meaningful to you, such as setting a special plate aside, decorating a special ornament or donating a gift in their memory to charity. You could also make them a part of your holiday gathering by lighting a special candle, taking turns sharing memories, or designating a space where you can place notes, food, and special memory objects or decorations.
See below for some specific ideas about how you can commemorate the important person in your life who died.
While having a plan can help, give yourself permission to change your mind and do what is best for you and your family in the moment. It may help to have back-up plans or to let friends and family know ahead of time that you may need to leave a gathering if you are feeling overwhelmed. Different members of the family may not all feel the same way. Communicate with each other.
Be gentle with yourself
You have lost an important person in your life, and it is natural for the holiday season to look or feel different to you. Communicate to others what supports are best for you and your family. Many times, people want to show that they care and would be grateful if you let them know how they can help—whether it’s shoveling the driveway or inviting your children to an activity and allowing you to have some quiet time alone.
There is no right or wrong way to navigate the holidays
Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way for you and your family to approach the holiday season. What works for one person might not work for another, and each family member may grieve in different ways. Remember that you are the expert of your own grief.
Ideas for Commemoration at the Holidays
Each person has the opportunity to write down a memory of the person who died and places it in a bowl. The bowl is passed around and every person takes a random piece of paper out and reads the memory. When the memory is read, the person who wrote that memory lights a votive candle in the center of the table or places a flower in the vase.
This activity may be helpful for children or adults who are shy or unwilling to share their particular memories. Having someone else read it may be less threatening. If the child who wrote the memory doesn’t want to light a candle, then the person reading the memory may light the candle instead.
Find a recipe that the person loved to make or eat. What was special about that recipe? Work as a family to make the food together. Try to give each family member a specific job, but don’t force it if someone doesn’t want to participate. Share the memory food at your holiday meal.
Decorate a Vase For the Table Centerpiece
Let the children decorate a glass vase using permanent markers or glass markers for the centerpiece. Do not put the flowers in the vase but have them near the vase. Whoever wants to share a memory can place the flower in the vase as they share their memories. You can also use votive candles or you can place stones instead of flowers in a glass vase.
Create a Photo Collage of the Person who Died
The immediate family could each choose a photo they want to put on the collage. Have other photos (or copies of photos) out so that when others come over they too can choose a photo to add to the collage in remembrance of the person who died.
Create a Memory Box
Decorate the memory box. This box could be filled with photographs or objects that remind you of the person who died. The memory box could also be used as a centerpiece or placed in a special place during the holidays.
This activity may be helpful for children who want to do something tangible and visual. Invite children and others to write a memory or share their feelings on a small piece of paper that can be attached to a ribbon or tail on the helium balloon (there are environmentally safe balloons). As a family releases the balloons into the sky children and others can share what they’ve written or choose not to share.
Share a Special Activity Together
Do something you liked to do together or attend an event that reminds you of the person who died. It could be a sporting event, movie, museum, park, play, restaurant, or anything else that reminds you of your person.
Volunteering as Remembering
Is there something that the person the person who died loved to do to help others? Maybe they were active in a particular organization or devoted their time to helping a specific population? Brainstorm some ideas of how you can honor them by doing something that would be meaningful to them.