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A griever's guide to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, a holiday that many find tough to negotiate after someone they love has died, is once again around the corner. This is my third Thanksgiving without my brother alive on this earth. I cannot say, so far, that grieving has become easier. What I can say is that I’ve gotten more adept at coping, more able to think through my options for how to navigate the days. This becomes especially important around holidays or at whatever time a particular family has traditionally gathered to spend time together.

There is no one right way for a grieving person to approach Thanksgiving or any other holiday. There aren’t even 500 right ways. There are as many right ways as there are grieving people. Each situation is as unique as a fingerprint, with its once-in-a-lifetime combination of circumstances of the death, makeup of the family, personal traditions, nature of the relationships involved, number of years out from the loss, and much more.

Complicated, yes. But not impossible to address. With some thought and effort, you can find ways to get what you need over this holiday weekend. How might you arrive at your particular collection of choices for Thanksgiving of 2016? I offer the following gifts – not from me to you, but for you to present to yourself.

Images of cherished family Thanksgivings over the years.

Give yourself time, before and during the holiday, to think through what you need. What works for you this year may not look like what you’ve wanted any other year. Take some quiet time and entertain different options, even ones that seem completely out of character with the holiday. Talk with family members about your ideas and invite them to share theirs. For some, sticking to traditional locations, people, and foods may provide comfort; for others, this can be astoundingly painful. Do you want to be somewhere different from your customary holiday location? Eat completely uncharacteristic foods? Be with only your immediate family instead of a crowd? Order in takeout and gather your kids to eat in bed with you and watch a movie? Some may want to enhance the meal or weekend with special ceremonies that memorialize the deceased loved one, whereas others may want to keep the topic under wraps for all but the most private moments. No decision is perfect, but somewhere there is a choice that serves you at this moment.

Images of cherished family Thanksgivings over the years.

Give yourself permission to be honest with family and friends about how you feel. People who love you often have ideas about what you should do in different situations, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Friends and family may also offer opinions about your current choices and state of mind. Even when suggestions come from a place of love and caring, they may not be what you need right now. You have the right to express your needs honestly to friends and family. Explain as best you can that if your needs differ from what they offer or prefer, this reflects no judgment of them or their ideas. Help them understand that at this trying time, you simply must listen to yourself, and honor your needs, in order to continue to function.

Images of cherished family Thanksgivings over the years.

Give yourself compassion and understanding if you fall apart, or if you don’t. No matter how strong our resolve and how lofty our intentions, we cannot ultimately know how we will react to a holiday after a difficult loss. Whether you are newly bereaved or years down the road from a loss, a day like Thanksgiving can bring feelings to the forefront. Some become overwhelmed with emotion; conversely, others may find themselves calm in a way that can provoke judgment. Whether your emotions and behavior square with your expectations – and the expectations of others – or not, your willingness to meet those emotions with compassion will allow you to feel what you need to feel, and move through the feelings, without adding the painful burden of justifying them to yourself or others.

Images of cherished family Thanksgivings over the years.

Give yourself freedom to switch gears without advance notice. Even if you take time to think through your choices, even if you’ve worked with family members and friends to come up with a plan, you may get in the middle of your Thanksgiving experience and realize that everything feels awful. If this happens, and you begin to think you are a failure, or weak, or that you are ruining everyone’s day, try to set those judgments aside. Try to accept the truth of your emotions and offer yourself compassion. You might want to leave the place where all have gathered and go on a long walk or drive on your own. You might need to go to bed for a while. You may have an impulse to do something, eat something, or experience something that lies completely outside of the holiday plan. In the moment when new needs become clear and strong, see if you can honor them in a way that doesn’t turn the day on its head for everyone else.

Collect these gifts into a cornucopia of self-care. Put them on your metaphorical holiday table. Share them with those around you. I wish you strength, love, and the courage to shape the holiday in a way that reflects your needs. May this Thanksgiving give you as much peace as is possible in this moment in time.

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