Surviving Thanksgiving When You Are Grieving

Aside from the food and the Black Friday sales, being with your family is officially the theme for the last Thursday in November in the United States. It is the epitome of all family gatherings. And it can feel like a slap in the face if you don’t have a family or are estranged from your family.

I’ve had 21 Thanksgivings since my parents died in 1993 and I have had good ones and not so good ones. There are many ways to spend the day, and here are just a few of the ones that stand out for me.

Friendsgiving. This became popular with the sitcom “Friends” and I have spent several Thanksgivings preparing food and inviting friends to come over. This was actually how I spent the first Thanksgiving without my parents. I wanted to be around the traditional recipes that my mother would make and I didn’t want to be alone, so I invited friends and broke out the china and everything. It was my way to still hold on to some the traditions that I had grown up with and loved.

Traveling. This was one of my favorite ways to spend the holiday. By my second Thanksgiving alone, I didn’t want to be around those old traditions any more. They were more like painful reminders than comforting memories. A friend and I planned a vacation leaving the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day to go to Belize for four days. It was the most relaxing and enjoyable vacation that I had in a long time. There was no sign of Thanksgiving anywhere in Belize and I was thankful.

Go to a friend’s family’s house. This was one of my least favorite ways to spend the holiday. I mean, it’s one thing when the passive aggressiveness is happening with your own people, but when you are a witness to it with others that you aren’t related to, it is just really uncomfortable. The other piece to this is that when you’re an orphan, you get lots of pitying stares which just makes things worse. I think many times I attended these gatherings for the sake of my friend and not wanting to hurt their feelings, not because of my loneliness. I am grateful that they cared so much for me, but I was putting their needs ahead of mine.

Going to a friend’s house. I had a couple of friends that I worked with that were older and held their own Thanksgiving dinners and these were much better than going to a friend’s family’s house. The problem with this kind of Thanksgiving, and really any Thanksgiving dinner that you aren’t preparing yourself, is that you are going to encounter the foods that are traditional to others, not to you. It is amazing for instance how many different ways there are to make dressing (or stuffing). I wanted my mother’s dressing. Eating another kind of dressing/stuffing just seemed really sad to me.

Staying at home by myself. When I just wanted to eat my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner and I didn’t want all the fuss of guests, I would just make it for myself and eat it for about a week. It was a lot of work, but I felt closer to my parents this way. Many times I would have to make excuses to friends that wanted me to come to their house because they just didn’t understand or thought it was depressing to be by myself. I found it comforting.

Volunteering. There are so many opportunities to volunteer for soup kitchens or other charities that feed the homeless or home bound elderly on Thanksgiving. This was a nice reminder that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness.

These days I spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws or my husband and I celebrate on our own. Over the years, I’ve found new recipes that have made it into the Thanksgiving Dinner rotation and I can look back on Thanksgivings past with my parents with love and less sadness. I still watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and cheer for Santa and I still eat some pumpkin pie (even though I am the only one in the house that likes it).

My point for you, dear reader, is that you should do whatever feels right to you this Thanksgiving Day, in whatever form it takes. Don’t go somewhere you don’t want to go, don’t feel pressured to spend the day in any way that is not comfortable to you. Honor yourself and your feelings this day because the other theme for Thanksgiving is gratitude and even if you don’t feel like you have a lot to be grateful for right this minute, the fact that you had a love so strong in your life is something. Remember that and be gentle with yourself always.

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.” — Maya Angelou

Bless you this Thanksgiving Day and always.