Thanksgiving is meant to be a time when friends and family gather together around the dinner table to celebrate gratitude itself. It’s one of the few holidays not tied to any particular belief system, and is celebrated in several countries around the world.

But when you’re struggling with grief, it can seem abhorrent to step into the aura of happiness that surrounds Thanksgiving. So today, let’s talk about some ways you can cope when you find yourself in a reality you did not choose.


Decide if you’re attending the festivities.

In my blog, Permission to Pass, I talk about why it’s okay to say no when it comes to events like weddings, picnics, or even holidays. It is important to keep yourself open to your relationships with family and friends, but choosing to take a holiday for your healing is okay.
If you feel like you will have to mask your emotions (more on that below), or that the day will drain you mentally, physically, and spiritually, you may consider bowing out of Thanksgiving this year. You have permission to do what is best for you in your healing journey.


Be true to your emotions.

As a society, we’re taught to put on a smile and pretend all is well. Tears are to be avoided, especially during gatherings where the vibe is supposed to be ‘happy’. There are songs dedicated to putting on a happy face, laughing even though your heart is aching, and covering up scars so that others don’t see them. Showing emotion is weak, and should be avoided in order to avoid making others feel uncomfortable.

That’s called masking. This means that you’re using another emotion to cover up your true one. It’s faking a smile when you’re ready to break down, because you’ve been hit with a tsunami of grief.

It’s okay to be sad, to cry, and fully express yourself. When you’re celebrating a holiday, be sure to surround yourself with people who are okay with you being you. Remember that how you’re feeling now isn’t forever, and you’re not setting a tradition of grief—what you do this year won’t be exactly what you do next year. Stay present, and avoid telling yourself stories about future Thanksgiving celebrations.

Mindfully prepare.

In order to be comfortable expressing your grief during these emotionally heightened times, it’s important to prepare yourself and those you will be celebrating with.

Make a list of possible grief triggers. These triggers can be words, smells, sounds—any of the things that trigger the ocean of grief emotion.

Sit down and really ask yourself, what breaks you open? Before the holiday gathering, reflect on each item on your list of grief triggers. Recognize that it may result in a flood of emotion—and remind yourself that if the flood does come, it’s okay.

When making the list, relate to the potential emotion by asking, “What am I to learn when this comes up?” Very often, by preparing yourself in this manner prior to the event, the emotion is less intense.

Notify other attendees ahead of time to please don’t say, “How are you?”, but suggest instead that they ask, “How’s your grief?”

So many people do not know how to speak to someone who is grieving. I’ve found that many are grateful for the suggestion. And a bonus to this is, the person that you’ve given this gift of insight to will carry that information with them throughout their entire life, spreading better communication to their friends and family, who will then spread it to theirs. It’s a beautiful thing!

Prepare a story ally. Tell someone (perhaps the host/hostess) before the Thanksgiving gathering that you’d like to share a story about your deceased loved one. Ask them if they’d be willing to comment on what you share. That way, there won’t be an uncomfortable silence after you mention the deceased’s name.

This also encourages others to tell their stories and experiences with the loved one—and in my experience, that has led to laughter, tears, and a release of heaviness that makes the gathering even more special.


Include your loved one.

In the spirit of Dia de los Muertos, Thanksgiving is a great time to honor those who have passed. After all, this holiday is about gratitude—and sharing that gratitude with others. Here are a few ways you can actively embrace and include your beloved in your Thanksgiving celebration:

Invite everyone to help create the table decorations. Bring something of your person to the table as part of the centerpiece. For example, the first year after my mother’s passing, I recreated her traditional flower and fruit arrangement. The next Thanksgiving, I added three pheasant feathers. One each for my dad, son, and brother.

Set a place at the table for the person (or people) who are no longer physically present. This acknowledges that they’re still in our hearts, and even though they no longer occupy the physical world, their memory is alive and well within us.

Say their name. Before the hot food is set out, gather in a circle to have a special moment of remembrance. Each person can say who they miss, something that was truly unique and special about that person, and share an experience that the speaker treasures.

My personal example: “I miss Reed. He was handsome, sensitive, gifted at math and visual arts, an athlete, and charismatic leader. I remember baking cookies with intentional love and hearing the this is my ‘I love you’ in his chatter on the way to soccer practice”.

Do you have a special Thanksgiving tradition to honor your loved ones? Share below!

Love all around, above, below, to the left and to the right, before you and behind you,

If you’re struggling with the emotional process of grief...

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