Coping With the First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One 

Published September 22, 2022
Grandfather hugging granddaughter in dinning room at Thanksgiving

It can be difficult to adapt to life after the loss of a loved one, and it might seem like things will never go back to being the same. This can be especially true around the holiday season when friends and family are supposed to come together to celebrate.

Navigating the first Thanksgiving without a loved one after they have passed can be difficult and confusing. Depending on circumstances, you might not even know if you're ready to celebrate, let alone how you should do so. At the end of the day, you know what's best for you and your family. And, there are coping strategies you can keep in mind in order to help you through this challenging time.

Ways to Cope During the First Thanksgiving After Losing a Loved One

There are no right or wrong ways to cope with your grief or any other emotions you're experiencing after the loss of a loved one. What works for others might not work for you, and vice versa, and that's okay. The elements that help people cope and feel supported as they're grieving are as unique among individuals as personalities are.

Anything that makes you feel happier, less stressed, or more like your old self is a valid coping strategy. It can look like starting a mindfulness journal to explore things in your life you are grateful for. And, it can also look like giving yourself some time to cry and sit with your emotions.

Finding coping strategies that work for you can be especially important around the holidays, and even more so if you have lost a loved one recently. Take some time to understand what emotions you are feeling and what needs you might have. Then, do your best to be a friend to yourself and meet yourself wherever you are in your grief.

Decide What Kind of Gathering Is Right for You

Depending on how close you were to the family member that passed away, how long it has been since they passed, and how you're currently feeling, you might decide that you don't want to have a large or elaborate Thanksgiving. Or, you might feel called to have a bigger event and bring all of your friends and family together to comfort and support each other at this time.

Check in with yourself to learn more about your wants and needs. Do you have the spirits to be around a large group of people or a small one? Do you feel an obligation to host Thanksgiving because you have in the past, or is it something that you actually want? Do you think attending a Thanksgiving event would support your mental and emotional health, or do you think it would cause fatigue?

Do what's right for you. If you want to celebrate Thanksgiving, but don't have the energy to be around a large group of people, then only have your closest friends and family members over to support. If you feel like having all of your loved ones together, then invite the lot, and ask them to bring a dish or help in the kitchen so that you don't feel overwhelmed.

Reach Out to Loved Ones and See How They Feel

After you check in with yourself, you might also want to check in with those around you. Ask your family members and close friends how they're feeling about the upcoming holiday and how (or if) they feel like getting together.

This might also help you decide what kind of Thanksgiving is right for you. Maybe they feel the same you do and just want to have a small get-together. Or, maybe they are feeling up to hosting the event this year and can take some of the weight off of your shoulders.

This can help you gauge how others are feeling about celebrating the first Thanksgiving without a loved one. And, it might even help you lean on each other for support.

Give Yourself Time to Mentally and Emotionally Prepare

If you are hosting or attending a Thanksgiving event it can be helpful to take some time a week or so beforehand to prepare yourself. Family members and friends at the event might ask you how you are coping or bring up memories about the loved one who passed away. These subjects are sensitive and might cause you to feel heightened emotions.

Family supporting each other while celebrating thanksgiving

One thing you can do to help prepare yourself for these moments is to ask yourself the questions you think others might bring up. Then prepare responses that you can use the day of that you feel comfortable with. For example, if a family member says, "This Thanksgiving doesn't feel the same," you can say, "No, it doesn't, but that's okay," or whatever response feels authentic to you.

When you have a response prepared, it can offer a sense of comfort because you know you can return to it whenever you need it. And, it may help keep emotions at bay because you have already rehearsed a reply you feel comfortable with.

Set Boundaries if You Need or Want Them

You are always allowed to set boundaries in your life, especially after the loss of a loved one. If you attend a Thanksgiving event and want to put boundaries about certain topics in place, you should do so to protect your own well-being.

There are many different ways to set a boundary. For example, if you host a Thanksgiving dinner and call or text people to invite them over, you can let them know during that conversation that you would prefer certain topics not to be brought up the day of. Or, if during the Thanksgiving event someone brings up a topic you aren't comfortable with simply tell them that you don't feel like talking about that right now.

Even if you aren't the host of a Thanksgiving celebration, you are still allowed to have boundaries. If you're a guest at someone else's Thanksgiving event, you can ask the host for support and to ask the guests to respect your personal wishes.

Take Breaks When You Need Them

Whether you're hosting Thanksgiving or attending someone else's dinner or event, take breaks when you need them. Make sure to take breaks for both physical and emotional reasons.

If you're helping in the kitchen and start to feel fatigued, go and sit down. If people start to talk about the loved one that passed away and you start to feel sad or overwhelmed, find some peace in a quiet room for a bit. And, if the whole evening just becomes too much, you're allowed to leave whenever you need to.

Even if you have mentally prepared yourself beforehand or gone over scenarios in your head to prep you for the day, you can't predict exactly how you'll feel at the event. It's perfectly normal to feel sad, guilty, drained, or any other emotion. If it becomes overwhelming at any point, it's okay to step back.

Choose a Way to Honor the Family Member

Your first Thanksgiving without a loved one just might not feel the same as it usually does, and that's okay. You don't have to act like everything is business as usual, because it's not, and other family members that are present probably feel it, too.

One way to address the loss that you and your family may be feeling is to pay tribute to the family member that is no longer with you. This might help others at your Thanksgiving event know that you're all thinking of your loved one on that day. And, it can encourage people to talk about them and share their feelings with one another when they're missing loved ones.

Some ways to honor the family member at Thanksgiving are:

Happy family making a toast while sitting at dining table during Thanksgiving
  • Ask everyone to bring a photo of the loved one and create a scrapbook page
  • Raise a toast in their honor
  • Say a prayer together
  • Share a sentimental story about them
  • Make their favorite dish
  • Pay your respects before the family gathering
  • Save their favorite seat at the table
  • Encourage everyone to wear the loved one's favorite color
  • Listen to their favorite music
  • Have everyone share one thing they are thankful for about them

Allow Yourself to Do Things That Bring You Joy

After the loss of a loved one, it may seem difficult to have fun again and enjoy the aspects of life that you did before, especially around the holidays. You might even feel guilty when you do experience joy or laughter because it can feel like a betrayal to the person that you lost.

However, you are allowed to enjoy life again and do your best to celebrate holidays in a way that is comforting. It might take some time for old hobbies to feel fun, and get-togethers with friends might not feel as fulfilling as they did before, and that's okay. Give yourself time to rediscover things that make you happy, and that includes celebrating Thanksgiving, as well as finding activities around the holiday when you may have some extra time on your hands.

You might find that the same activities bring you joy, or you might discover a love for new ones. It can seem hard to go for a walk or put on some music, but when you do so, you are making a choice to support your well-being. During Thanksgiving, try your best to allow yourself to savor the joyful moments, and encourage your loved ones that are celebrating with you to do the same.

Some activities you might find enjoyable:

  • Cooking your favorite food
  • Painting a festive picture
  • Taking a walk to get some fresh air
  • Journaling about the highs of the season
  • Scrapbooking memories
  • Exercising to show love to your body
  • Meditating to give yourself mental rest

Find a Sense of Support to Turn To After the Event

Have you found a way to support your emotional health and overall well-being since the loss of your loved one? If you haven't yet, it might be time to. Especially if the holiday brings several of those deep feelings to the surface.

There are several support groups, both online and in-person for people to join who have lost a loved one and that may be going through similar experiences. You can also explore therapy options, or visit any mental professional to help you process and cope with everything you have been through.

If you don't feel ready to join a therapy program or support group, that's okay. You can turn to your friends and family members that you trust and feel connected to for a sense of social support. Set up a weekly get-together or phone call to help you vent, decompress, and reminisce.

Two young women walking in park after Thanksgiving lunch

The First Holidays Without a Loved One Are Tough

It can be difficult to celebrate a holiday dedicated to giving thanks when you're still grieving the loss of a loved one. You can find a way to honor their memory by reflecting on the joy they brought into your life and expressing gratitude for all of the good times you had with them. And, it might feel nice to invite others to do the same.

If you decide you aren't up to celebrating Thanksgiving the first year after a loved one has passed, that's perfectly okay. And, it's also okay if you find it more comforting to host the kind of celebration you've done for years. What's important is that you listen to your own needs and try not to push yourself beyond your mental and emotional bandwidth.

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Coping With the First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One