Facing Thanksgiving After Loss: How to Survive Thanksgiving When a Family Member is Missing

Most American families are eagerly looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving. Eating Turkey and dressing, watching football games, and visiting with loved ones are all rituals of a day that marks the beginning of the holiday season. However, Thanksgiving traditions can also bring sadness when a family member has recently died. Facing a first holiday without a cherished relative requires adjustment for the entire family.

The Holiday Has Changed

In her article entitled Helping Bereaved Children Through the Holidays published on, Dr. Robin F. Goodman, a clinical psychologist specializing in children’s bereavement issues, says traditional holidays like Thanksgiving can be difficult for families adjusting to loss.

She suggests that families:

  • Recognize that the anticipation of Thanksgiving can be more distressing than the holiday itself.
  • Pay a tribute to the missing person in some way.
  • Respect others’ feelings and space as much as possible.
  • Be flexible with plans and traditions.
  • Understand that getting through the first Thanksgiving may bring relief.

Change the Routine

Some people decide to totally change plans on Thanksgiving Day. One family, after the loss of their father, rented a meeting hall for the day. They served sandwiches and set up video and board games for the kids. The squeals and laughter of their youngest generation having fun made everyone feel better.

According to Luis Orta, a clinical psychologist, time is the most important element in healing. During the first Thanksgiving, relatives may not be ready to participate in crowded holiday celebrations. Orta feels people will begin to heal when they’re ready to heal. Some survivors might consider spending the day quietly with a trip to the park or a visit to a movie theater instead to going to a traditional dinner.

Helping serve Thanksgiving Dinner at a homeless shelter is also a great way to honor a loved one. Many elderly friends and neighbors, especially those in nursing homes, face the holidays alone. Visiting a lonely senior can definitely be a mood elevator.

Talk to Someone

Family members, who are overwhelmed at the thought of the festivities ahead, should be encouraged to visit a counselor. Grief counselors can be located through professional organizations. Competent counselors can also be found through referrals of trusted friends. Most local human services departments are usually willing to recommend well-trained professionals. Also, pastors are often well-trained in grief counseling. Finally, several excellent, legitimate organizations such as the AARP offer web pages with helpful suggestions or bulletin boards for questions and discussions on dealing with grief and the holidays.

Facing Thanksgiving after a loss is never easy. A missing relative changes a family’s dynamics and Thanksgiving celebrations forever. Survivors should recognize that the holiday may be stressful and make plans that reflect this change in their lives. Altering traditions, pursuing different activities, helping others, and encouraging grieving members to talk are all useful suggestions for families facing a first Thanksgiving without a loved one.

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