Grief, Gratefulness, Gatherings – The Many Challenges of Thanksgiving
Updated: Jan 6
By Jill S. Cohen, NYC family grief counselor
At the end of this month the calendar marks the holiday of Thanksgiving holiday. It’s later than usual this year, so there is more time to dread its arrival.
Holidays, and this one in particular, which are centered around family, friendship, laughter-filled holiday dinner tables, and declarations of thankfulness, can be very hard to handle for a grieving person, no matter how much or how little time has past since the death of a loved one. The mood of this holiday may go against the actual reality of you how you are feeling.
Try to keep these in mind ---
It’s very normal, after a death, to feel indifference and disinterest towards events and experiences which used to bring you joy. That’s not your fault. It’s the way it is. Grief changes yourself and your life. You may feel like you’re standing on the other side of the window, looking in, watching others feel happy while you feel sad. It is okay to NOT feel grateful. After all, you’ve been dealt a pretty heavy blow.
HOWEVER, while it is okay not to feel grateful, you could give “grateful” a try. You can acknowledge gratefulness for the support you may have received from family and friends, grateful for an invitation to a holiday celebration, grateful for having choices as to how to celebrate. You don’t have to skip the gatherings altogether.
If you can gear up to get through the day in holiday mode, give it a try. Nobody will call you out for not being your “usual cheery self.” They will know that you are a person who is grieving, and they will welcome you warmly, whether you’re wearing a smile or a frown face.
Even though you don’t have to be grateful, as I mentioned above, you can try to conjure up a few things for which you can give thanks. Start small. Think of one little thing that you are thankful for. Then another, then another. You may discover that while the unimaginable has happened in your life, some positives have come about.
GRIEF TRIGGERS appear easily at Thanksgiving. They will come in the form of: people you’re spending time with, foods you are eating, conversation topics with the guests, photo frames on view, to name a few. Try to anticipate them so that you are not caught off guard. Remember to take a deep breath when you feel like you’ve been hit with a trigger, and keep a glass of water nearby, to ground you. You can even think of some phrases to say when people ask you certain questions about your loved one or your grief.
Use your coping tools and strategies at holiday time. (I arm my clients with ideas and ways of handling situations that may arise). It’s always better to be prepared than disarmed. It’s ok to let your emotions take hold of you. They are inside of you and cannot be repressed. Let your emotions out, healthfully. Take breaks if you need to. Go outside or into a quiet room.
Don’t overdo it. Don’t put pressure on yourself to attend every holiday opportunity that comes along, if you are overwhelmed or easily tired out. Grief is tiring. You need time and space to recharge. It’s okay to decline invitations.
Do something to memorialize and honor your loved one on Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just something, so that you are consciously giving time to the grief, by recreating the memories and the relationship. You don’t want to get all caught up in “getting through the holiday” that you ignore the very reason for which you are grieving.