Grateful Remembrance Jar: A Quick and Easy Thanksgiving Activity

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

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So you think you're ready for Thanksgiving. You've got your turkey. You've assigned side dishes to your most reliable family and friends. You've asked your aunt to bring her famous pecan pie, and you've created a Thanksgiving playlist that will please everyone from your crotchety old Uncle Larry to your always in-the-know teenage niece. Yep, everything's ready....everything's good to g...wait...something's missing.

Something's missing other than the aching hole left in your annual Thanksgiving celebration by your loved one's death. This void hangs in your consciousness like a neon vacancy sign at all times. It's inescapable, and it's one you've likely stumbled around for weeks now as you tried to envision the holiday season without someone so special.

Your loved one's absence may be felt so severely this holiday season that it's a presence in-and-of-itself. It's always there - it's the pit in your stomach, the lump in your throat, the words of sorrow that sit on the tip of your tongue, and in the memories that flicker through your mind like an old home video movie reel gone haywire. 

You're loved one is physically gone, but psychologically very very present, so perhaps what may be missing from your Thanksgiving is a space to acknowledge this reality. Some of you may already be planning to honor and remember deceased loved ones at your Thanksgiving gathering, but for those of you who are not, we have a quick and easy activity idea for you. 

This is an activity you can likely do with supplies lying around your house, so please don't be deterred if you aren't a "crafty" person or if you're worried you're running out of time.

Grateful Remembrance Jar:grateful remembrance jar

Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks and finding gratitude, but after a loved one has died, it can be pretty challenging to find anything to be grateful for in the here-and-now. And that's...okay. You don't have to be thankful for the present if you don't want to.

Instead of focusing on the present, this activity is about expressing gratitude for the past you shared with your loved one. By sharing these gratitudes, family and friends have an opportunity to connect, share, honor, and remember in a way that is a little bit happy and a little bit sad (there's space for all emotion at the Thanksgiving table).

This activity is about as simple as can be. Here's what you need to do:

Step One: Find a Jar or Bowl

This is called a 'Grateful Remembrance Jar', but really, you can use anything to gather your messages of gratitude.  A bowl or a basket will work just as well.

Step Two: Make some slips of paper

My recommendation is to use something sturdy like card stock, but you can use regular ole paper if it's all you have. In my example, I used blank greeting cards that already had a fold in the middle.  I cut them into strips and I wrote things like 'Thank You', 'Grateful' and 'With Gratitude' on the outside. If you have time to do something like this, great!  If not, leave them blank.

The idea is that as your guests gather on Thanksgiving, they will write messages of thanks and gratitude for your loved one on these sheets of paper and slip them into the jar.

Step Three: Find some pens

That's all, just find some pens.

Step Four: Make a sign with some instructions

You can do this in one of two ways:

1. If you have no time:  If you're short on time, you can print the generic instruction sheet we created (pictured below): grateful remembrance instructions

You can also just grab a blank sheet of paper and write down the instructions yourself.  Basically, you want to instruct people to share their thanks and gratitude for the person who has died.  Ask them to share memories, lessons, experiences, and the ways they continue to influence their lives.  If you're not sure what to write, here's some sample text:

"[Your loved one's name] lives on in memories shared at our holiday table. We invite you to write down memories, lessons and stories that remind you of [your loved one's name] and place them in our gratitude jar."

2. If you have a little time: If you have a little extra time to get fancy, try creating instructions that are more personal and/or decorative. Consider including things like pictures, a favorite quote, etc.

** If you have children who have been impacted by the loss, this is a great time to get them involved.  Tell them the plan, give them a sheet of poster board and some supplies, and let them do the decorating. **

Step Five: Find a spot and set up 

On Thanksgiving, find a spot and set up the grateful remembrance activity.  If you are a guest at your Thanksgiving gathering, you will obviously want to enlist the help of the host (perhaps ahead of time).  Throughout the day, remind people to share a message of thanks and gratitude.

Step Six: Share 

Designate a time when you will remove the messages of thanks and gratitude from the jar and share with guests at your Thanksgiving gathering. How you decide to do this is really up to you. 

If you think you'll be able to share the messages aloud, think about doing so before the Thanksgiving blessing or between dinner and dessert.  If you don't want to share them out loud, or if it's not feasibly possible, consider hanging them up, taping them up, or laying them out after dinner. 

In the example below, I bought an inexpensive string of lights and clips from the photo section at target.

And that's it!  Easy, right?  Okay, now go gather your supplies!

How do you plan to honor and remember your loved one this holiday season?  Share in the comments below. 

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12 Comments on "Grateful Remembrance Jar: A Quick and Easy Thanksgiving Activity"

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  1. Alison  November 23, 2021 at 2:43 pm Reply

    It is nearly three years since my husband died and I have decided to shift. The house is too big and the memories instead of being happy are too painful. But I cry for him and my lovely house and am wondering if I am doing the right thing. I am so tired

    • Litsa  December 18, 2021 at 4:35 pm Reply

      Alison, please remember we can feel two things at once – both wanting to let the house go, while also finding the thought of that sad. It doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing. It just means that as humans we often have mixed feelings about things.

  2. Anne Smith  November 19, 2019 at 6:16 pm Reply

    i was wondering what I was going to do this year in memory of my son gone 7 years now. he died on Dec.1, 2012 and every year i do something different and didn’t know what it would be this year, now I know I will make a post like this on his memoriam page and invite his friends to share. thanks for the wonderful idea, it will give me a new look into his life.

  3. Mary Bennett  November 16, 2019 at 10:48 am Reply

    This is our first holiday without my 45 year old son that passed on Sept. 21st. He was going to come to our house which is out of town . His grown children and wife are now going to have Thanksgiving at her house. The kids want to go to where we scattered the ashes. I love the idea of writing thank you notes to him but I think it may be better for us to write a message and then taking it to where we scattered the ashes and then burning them and letting them flood away in the water.

  4. Miranda  November 15, 2019 at 1:17 pm Reply

    I have been trying to figure out what to do to include my sons memory without an actual empty chair. This will be our first holiday season without him and it’s already so hard! I think my family will like this idea and I like it too. Thank you!

  5. Marla Horvath  November 6, 2019 at 2:47 pm Reply

    I run a GriefShare support group and I think this is a wonderful project for Surviving the Holidays. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Cynthia Sewell  August 6, 2019 at 7:41 pm Reply

    This will be Hard, Sad, but GOOD for us All. I will share with my husband, daughters, grand children and great grandchildren and hopefully we can do it!

  7. Rhonda Bonner  November 28, 2018 at 9:09 pm Reply

    I am afraid to do this because people will probably have nothing good to say about my son.

    • Babbette  December 9, 2018 at 2:55 pm Reply

      And maybe…..they will have something good to say that you didn’t even know about. 🙂
      Best wishes to you this holiday season!

    • Heather  November 26, 2019 at 12:16 am Reply

      If you’re afraid of what others might say, then just make a jar for yourself and write down your own memories. It can be something to honor him, and to share just between you and him.

  8. Cathy Sapos  November 21, 2018 at 12:53 pm Reply

    I was hoping to find a way to focus on gratitude for the many happy memories we have and this is a great idea! THANK YOU!

    This Thanksgiving will be especially hard for all of us. My 20 year old daughter died last year on Thanksgiving night. We’re not going to have a traditional dinner but will have tacos instead as they were one of her favorite foods. Since Thanksgiving is not on the same date every year we will also have another day to get through, the 23rd. That day we will have Chick-fil-a nuggets and homemade mac and cheese, another favorite of hers. I did a lot of crocheting this past year and made crocheted hearts for her nieces and nephews. I also ordered personalized Christmas ornaments with her picture, name and dates on them. I will have pictures and the slideshow from the funeral available for those who may want to see them.

  9. Kevin Carroll  November 21, 2018 at 11:59 am Reply

    Excellent recommendation. The “empty chair” at the Thanksgiving table will be a painful reminder of the loss, but an activity such as this offers the opportunity for compassionate accompaniment and healing. Thank you for the suggestion.

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