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Grief during Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving . . . this is a tough holiday for grieving people. After all, it’s a time when you’re supposed to surround yourself with friends and family and celebrate with gratitude. But when you’ve lost a loved one, that can feel hard—maybe impossible—to do.

Last night, I saw a commercial on TV for a store. It had a large family gathered and celebrating Thanksgiving. The point of the ad was to inform that the store was closed on Thanksgiving. Rather than opening early for Black Friday deals, the store was letting employees enjoy the day with their families. As I watched the ad, I appreciated and was touched that the store was forsaking possible sales and profit for its employees. At the same time, I was thankful I wasn’t new to the grieving journey. The ad showed grandparents, parents, and children gathered around and looking happy while eating, playing games, and holding hands. Had I just lost my spouse, that commercial would’ve put me right over the edge. I’d probably still be in bed feeling deep sadness and depression after watching a cheerful family—seemingly with all members present—as they celebrated Thanksgiving and gave thanks.

My husband died less than two weeks before Thanksgiving. That first Thanksgiving without him was brutal. All around me, people were joyful and celebrating. I, meanwhile, cried constantly and felt like a shell of myself. Did I have reasons to be grateful? Yes, but in that stage I couldn’t feel any gratitude. I just felt unbearable pain. I’ve now lived through enough Thanksgivings without my husband that I could watch that commercial and not go into despair. But if you’re feeling grief this week, I’m not surprised. Thanksgiving is challenging—maybe even cruel—after a loss.

Here are some suggestions on what helped me during those first Thanksgivings without my husband:

1) Do something different: I went to a restaurant rather than a home for Thanksgiving dinner. My husband enjoyed cooking the Thanksgiving meal, so we often had gatherings at our house or at my mom’s. After he died, I had no desire to be in a traditional family setting. I visited my brother’s house for perhaps 10 minutes. It was so painful to see his family celebrating (with his in-laws) that my mom and I pretty much walked in and walked right back out. Instead, we ate at a vegan restaurant attached to the Hare Krishna temple. Mostly single people surrounded us, not families or couples. One guy was even using a laptop, so I felt comfortable there. I referred to the restaurant as a place for misfits, and on that Thanksgiving, I felt like a misfit.

2) Keep some of the same rituals if they serve you: My husband loved A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, so every year we watched it. I’ve continued to watch it every year since he died. The show makes me feel connected to him. This is an example of a ritual I’ve maintained.

3) Honor your loved one: Perhaps share a favorite memory or set a place for your loved one at the table. Or maybe light a candle in his/her honor. Or maybe make your loved one’s favorite Thanksgiving dish.

4) Stay connected to your loved one: During my first Thanksgiving without my spouse, I carried Mickey and Minnie Mouse salt-and-pepper shakers all day. Mickey and Minnie were dressed as pilgrims. My husband and I had purchased those shakers on our last trip to Disney World. We looked forward to displaying them on our Thanksgiving table. But he died before we even had a chance to open the package. I was devastated he died before we could even use the shakers. Therefore, I held them in my pockets all day on Thanksgiving. They served as an anchor for me and a way to connect with him. I encourage you to find a way to connect to your loved one (if that would help you).

5) Be ok if you feel happy or want to celebrate: After a loss, it can feel uncomfortable to laugh or have fun in the midst of grieving. I remember laughing hysterically at a Thanksgiving episode of a TV show just days after my husband died. How could I laugh? But that’s grief—sometimes you have fun and sometimes you laugh. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean you don’t miss and love your spouse. It’s ok if you enjoy yourself. Be fine with that. And if you don’t, be fine with that too.

6) Have compassion for yourself: I know a few of my widow friends are experiencing deep depression this week. Yes, Thanksgiving is hard. There’s no doubt Thanksgiving highlights that your spouse is gone. Even if you keep everything the same, it’s not—your loved one is missing. It will never be the same without your loved one. It can still be enjoyable, but it won’t be the same. So have compassion for yourself. You may need extra rest this week. You may need others to host Thanksgiving or to cook (or get the meal catered). You may cry more this week. That’s to be expected. Ask for support if you need it. Just have compassion for yourself.

I send you much love and peace this week.

As a reminder, author Patti Ashley and I are hosting a Grief and the Holidays webinar on December 2 at 6:00 p.m. MST (8:00 EST). Register at

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