Your First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One

By Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

Updated: November 28, 2019

Posted: November 7, 2017

Your first Thanksgiving without your loved one is approaching, and you may not know how to manage grief during  the holidays. Before the loss, we expected to spend quality time with the people we love. This time of year means we engage in traditions that bring out our inner child, and foster a sense of security, even as the world around us changes.

We hope for feelings of love, gratitude, and compassion to fill our heart and soul. This Norman Rockwell ideal is difficult to live up to, even without grief as an unwelcome guest. There are many examples of holiday strife, including forced visits with irritating relatives, arguments over political and religious views, and the financial challenges many of us face right before the big “giving season.” Grief amplifies it all.

Managing Holiday Expectations

Of course the pain of grief shatters our assumptive world well beyond the holiday season. While many of us would prefer to hunker down and come out when the season is over (even if you do choose to skip holiday celebrations, and that is a choice) your grief will still be there. We know it isn’t the passage of time, but how you spend that time, that matters when trying to cope with grief.

Acknowledging that this holiday season will be different without your person is hard, but true. Some members of your family may try to “power through.” The loss effects everyone in your family system, as well as some friends, and each person will have their own unique grief experience.  Expect the unexpected. Know this year will be different than the last. It may be difficult and painful, but there may also be some special times, too.

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Meditation for Grief During The Holidays
With Heather Stang

Your First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One

My uncle died by suicide 40 years ago on October 18th. I was only seven, and 40 years later I am sure my memory is a bit fuzzy. But what I remember from that first Thanksgiving after my uncle’s death has stayed with me.

My grandmother was the secretary for the First Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina. She was an excellent cook who took great care in preparing all the southern staples for our holiday meals. Traditionally, my grandfather would hunt quail in the morning, and she would have them oven fried and ready to serve by mid-afternoon, surrounded by corn pudding, squash casserole, a bounty of garden grown vegetables, mashed potatoes, and homemade gravy.

Although her son had died just over a month before Thanksgiving, she tried her best to replicate holidays past. She prepared the lavish meal, but gone was the joy. The tone was set by her—that to acknowledge the grief we were feeling was unacceptable. I remember watching most of the grown-ups pretend that everything was okay, which was awkward and painful. It felt like my mom and I were the only ones who knew it wasn’t.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But there were a lot of things we could have done to incorporate our memory of my uncle into the holiday—were it “allowed.” We could have set a chair at the table in his honor, or shared our favorite memory with him. A candle could have been lit to remind us of his spirit, or a prayer said for all of us in pain.  My grandmother could have given herself a break from cooking, and instead we could have gone to a restaurant. However, I imagine staying busy was helpful for her. Cooking provided a sense of normalcy in an abnormal situation.

My grandmother’s coping style was denial—that first Thanksgiving and beyond. While she never showed it outwardly, I know the pain inside was indescribable and without end. When she died at the age of 99 ½, she still held to the story that her son had been robbed at gunpoint, a tale so ingrained by that time that she believed it to be fact.

Plan Ahead & Honor Your Special Person

If grief has entered your heart this holiday season, know that dreading the holidays is not unusual. It is normal. While you did not choose this loss, you can plan ahead and make choices on how to cope with the first Thanksgiving without your loved one. Acknowledge that what has happened has really happened, and it hurts. To pretend otherwise is not only untrue, but for many of us it just adds to our pain.

Reflect on how you would like to honor your special person this holiday season. It may be in conjunction with family members and friends, or it may be a private ritual just for you. Take a moment and brainstorm ways you would like to honor your special person this Thanksgiving, and if you wish, share them in the comment box below.

Next week’s blog will cover some specific ways you can cope with this holiday.

Heather Stang, MA, C-IAYT

About the author

Heather Stang, M.A. is the author of Mindfulness & Grief. She holds a Masters degree in Thanatology (Death, Dying, and Bereavement) from Hood College in Maryland, and is a certified Yoga Therapist. She is on the Advisory Board for the highly regarded military family survivor organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and is a faculty member of the Portland Institute of Loss & Transition, founded by Dr. Robert A. Neimeyer. She is also the host of the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast, founder of the Mindfulness & Grief Institute and the Frederick Meditation Center in Maryland.

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