The holiday season can be a sentimental time, filled with a mix of today’s emotions and memories from years past. If you once had holiday celebrations that were surrounded by loved ones, quieter years can seem lonely, lacking, or disappointing. Personal situations among groups of families and friends inevitably change over the years. Thanksgiving can be a reminder of the way things were before, or the people who used to be in our lives. When they are no longer present, it can be really difficult to accept their absence. Finding the strength to be flexible is not always easy, especially during the added stress that the holidays often bring. Bonding with others who have been in a similar situation, and giving ourselves a little extra slack and understanding during this time of year, can go a long way in easing the pain of grief during Thanksgiving.
The history of Thanksgiving provides an example of the power of connecting with others through times of grief. Both the Pilgrims and Native Americans underwent significant periods of change and loss during early American history.
The early settlers left behind loved ones and their familiar surroundings to embark on the tumultuous journey to the United States. Native Americans were put through decades of hardship, destruction and aggression.
The Pilgrims had to sacrifice relationships with those who stayed behind, in a time when regular communication overseas wasn’t even a remote possibility. They left home with no plans to return. Certainly, the pilgrims had an understanding that they were saying goodbye to friends, relatives and neighbors who they would likely never see again. All of this was done in the name of religious freedom, a conviction that drove many individuals to give up everything they had ever known for a fresh start. Freedom came with the price of a completely new and uncertain life ahead.
The Native Americans faced centuries of adversity and prosecution at the hands of the English settlers and other Europeans. Compounded by the harsh living conditions of the time, they clearly had their share of grief to bear. The natural environment in New England included brutal winters, dangerous predators and barren land. The Native American community was ridden with Smallpox and other diseases that were introduced as new populations immigrated to their land. Native Americans undoubtedly lost loved ones, resources and a sense of security within their tribal communities. They were forced to adapt to difficult and changing times without much choice in the matter.
In modern times, we celebrate Thanksgiving to recognize the coming together of two cultures over a communal harvest meal. Despite their differences, the Pilgrims and Native Americans joined at the table in Plymouth Plantation to share a profound moment which exemplifies an overarching connection of the human spirit. Both cultures faced adversity, tribulation and loss. Both were fighting to survive through trying times. On the first Thanksgiving, nothing in life was as it had been in the past for anyone sitting at that table.
In the spirit of the first Thanksgiving, we encourage you to make every effort to embrace the changes that come with new years and changing circumstances.
If you recently moved to a new location or will not be spending this holiday with the same people you have spent it with in the past, it’s okay to feel sadness. This is a normal reaction and doesn’t need to be hidden or disguised. Change is not easy, and the gravity of the holidays can often amplify our emotions. Even if this isn’t your first year facing a loss, the empty chair at the table, or the loss of a tradition that you hold dear, can pull on your heartstrings and bring you back to feelings of grief that you thought had long since passed.
The holidays can be especially hard on first-time empty-nesters. If you were used to spending Thanksgiving with your kids at home while they were growing up, it can be tough to accept that your grown children might be traveling, visiting in-laws or simply unavailable to be there in the same capacity that they used to be. Instead of giving up or letting this change ruin your holiday, perhaps planning ahead and coming up with a new way to spend quality time together can ease some of the grief associated with this change. For instance, if you aren’t able to see your family members on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps you can visit over the weekend following or exchange cards and photos from years gone by to remember the good times you once had. Being creative in how we connect with our loved ones as the years pass can help us make new memories and help with grieving those changes.
Of course, the loss of a loved one who has passed away is particularly glaring during the holidays. This is a time of year where it’s important to be kind to ourselves, allowing time for reflection on meaningful memories and relationships. While we can’t bring back those who are no longer around to share these special moments with us, we can still honor our feelings and acknowledge the meaningful connections of our past.
It’s not realistic or beneficial to pretend that we won’t be thinking about significant people who are no longer joining us at the dinner table. It’s okay to recognize their absence and talk about it with those you are close with. Perhaps lighting a candle, posting a photo or sharing a story can help you pay tribute to your memories. Preparing a loved one’s favorite dish who can’t be with you during Thanksgiving is another nice way to remember them this holiday season.
Furthermore, setting your own limits and boundaries around the holidays is important. Only you can decide if you want to celebrate Thanksgiving this year or if you need a break from your usual traditions.
In order to move beyond loss, we need to dig deep and allow our feelings and emotions to come forth in an open and vulnerable way. Is this scary? Yes, it can be. Is it worth it? Absolutely, without a doubt! Recovering from a significant emotional loss is not an easy task, but YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Taking the actions that lead to recovery will require your attention, open-mindedness, willingness, and courage.
It’s okay to say no, to stay home or to do things differently. Your grieving process is unique and you shouldn’t push yourself to go through motions to please other people. As long as you make it clear to others around you what your wishes are, it’s okay to take some time off if you need to. The holidays can feel overwhelming when you are grieving. Know your limits and share them with others so you can protect your heart from situations that feel like too much to handle right now.
With continued effort and the support of a Grief Recovery Program, there is hope that the holidays can be enjoyable once again. Things may never be the same as they once were, but there is still joy and happiness to be found during special celebrations…if not this year, then maybe next year. Grief Recovery is not about forgetting those we have lost or pushing aside our feelings. It’s about getting to a place where we are able to fully participate in happy moments once again. This process doesn’t happen overnight.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself during the holidays while you are grieving. Next year will be different, as change is a given with time. Of course, time itself won’t heal our wounds (and this is a common myth related to grief). However, time does bring new changes that we must prepare to face. In order to feel ready to embrace the changes of life, we must take a step aside and do the work to heal our hearts. If you need support for recent losses or losses from your past, it’s never too late to reach out and connect with a program that can help you find a new normal. With the right support, eventually, you will be able to find space for positivity and gratitude on Thanksgiving once again.