Thanksgiving After a Loss: When Thanksgiving isn't Happy

Celebrating Thanksgiving can be very difficult after a loss. This is a good time of year to reach out to those who are grieving.

It is that time of year again when you can't help but hear holiday music playing in stores, see twinkling lights and notice that a big man in a red and white suit is at the mall. Thanksgiving will arrive in just a few days and there is lots of talk about traveling to see relatives and friends for the weekend. People seem to be in great spirits.  What if you feel anything but happy at the thought of the approaching holidays?  Perhaps you or someone you care about has just suffered a loss. What do you do when there is joy all around you and yet you just wish you could wake up and it would be January 2nd?

As a grief educator and grief counselor I am more than aware of the many children, teens and adults who are grieving at this time of year and in our own family, town and neighboring towns. Someone you know has recently experienced the loss of a loved one, dear friend, colleague or neighbor. I have sat with about fifty people in the past few months who are all dreading this holiday season as it will be the first time without their person.  My heart goes out to each and every one of them and you who are going through your first or second or even tenth holiday season without your special person here. Sometimes I would rather say to a griever this week, "Thanksgiving",and just drop the "Happy".

I ask those of you who are not currently in the midst of grief to show extra kindness and care to the grieving people around you. Visit them, drop them a note, email or text, pick up the phone and just let them know you are thinking of them. It will be greatly appreciated. Don't say trite things like "it is all for the best, at least he isn't suffering anymore" or "she is in a better place" or my least favorite comment, "your mom wouldn't want you to be sad now". I used to want to say to people on that one, "Actually you are wrong, because my mom would be glad to know that I am sad and that I miss her very much." Less is best when it comes to saying things to grievers but nothing is worse. The best is to share stories about the person if you knew them or to share stories of what you remember they have shared with you involving the person. Ask if they want to talk, to get out for a cup of coffee or just have a little company.

Sometimes grievers get through the first holidays by doing things very differently like going out for Thanksgiving dinner instead of being at home.  Maybe taking a trip to a friend's home somewhere away from where you normally would be may help. Going some place that feels nurturing like the beach or long drive could be nice.  Some will choose to do the day the traditional way, but decide to share stories of their loved one over turkey. One family I know took out lots of family photos of loved ones who had died and placed them all over a solid color table cloth then, covered the photos with a clear tablecloth. They told me it was a wonderful way to feel that those who weren't around any longer were still being remembered. They had many laughs and a few tears as they shared some wonderful stories with one another.

Here is something that you can give to each one of your grieving friends, family or others that they may appreciate a lot.


Permission to Mourn:

The holder of this certificate, Is hereby entitled to publicly acknowledge his/her loss, to mourn openly, to share narratives of the loss and to recruit social support in his or her own way and time without apology or embarrassment.

Tears, memories, silence, uncertainty and strong emotions are hereby allowed.

Please treat this griever with kindness, compassion and love.

This certificate has no expiration date

(Harold Ivan Smith, author and grief specialist)


"Giving ourselves time to heal and creating space for the process allows the painful memories to be replaced gradually by more pleasant ones. The pain subsides, and one remembers the whole relationship, not just the most recent memories of illness and death. We make peace with what was unresolved." ~ Anne Brener


Take care of yourself during this holiday time and take care of someone else around you who would be so grateful that you were thinking of them.

A good book for this time of year: A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others are Celebrating by Harold Ivan Smith

For helpful information on grief and loss visit my website: www.griefspeaks.com


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

dana lustbader December 01, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Thank you for this. We just lost my father unexpectedly, only a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Our day to be together as a family was a mixed bag of emotions. We all kept busy preparing for the holiday but when we sat down, his absence was felt like a dark space. We cried and laughed, then cried some more, but realized that this emotional rollercoaster would stay with us for a long time. Your article was insightful and helpful....thank you.


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