Grief at Thanksgiving: Gratitude with a grain of salt

Holidays and Special Days Holidays and Special Days : Eleanor Haley

I’ll go ahead and acknowledge the giant turkey in the room, Thanksgiving can be the pits for people who are grieving. Many of the values, traditions, and messages associated with the day, like warmth, comfort, gratitude, and family togetherness, can feel in direct conflict with a grieving person’s actual reality. 

If you are grieving, you probably know what I mean by this. Though you may be hesitant to admit it, you’re amongst grief-friends here, and it’s okay to admit that you’re feeling just a little (or a lot) less grateful than you’ve felt in years past. Yes, despite all the grand festivities, the ’30-Days of Thankfulness’ challenges on Facebook, and Charlie Brown and his dang pumpkin

After a death, it’s typical for grieving people to feel apathy towards some of the experiences that used to bring them joy. This is not a deliberate choice anyone makes, grief just changes the way life looks and feels. 

Sadly, this loss of joy may feel like a secondary loss to many, especially if you feel out of touch with things you previously cherished, like holidays and special days. You’d love to feel those old familiar and enthusiastic holiday feelings, but instead, it feels like you’re standing out in the cold, watching through a window while everyone else enjoys the warmth and togetherness of the holiday season.

With all the uplifting and nostalgic holiday messaging, no one would blame you for feeling left out. Many people feel like the holidays are only for happy people and those who are sad either need to shape up or ship out. However, I’m here to refute this notion. Your invitation to the holidays isn’t revoked simply because you don’t embody holiday cheer.

I know many of you experiencing the heavy thoughts and distressing emotions of grief may be thinking about scraping Thanksgiving all together. Maybe you’re dreading grief triggers, maybe your loved one seemed so central to the day that you wouldn’t know how to carry it off without them, or maybe you’re just feeling anything but grateful. 

If it’s an absent sense of gratitude that’s making you feel cut-off from Thanksgiving, I want to offer a thought. Just as the holidays aren’t only for happy people, neither is gratitude. You don’t have to choose between grief or feeling grateful. 

As we’ve said in the past, you can feel two things at once. In fact, grief is fertile ground for experiencing conflicting emotions. So here’s our not at all groundbreaking advice: Try to have a balanced outlook towards gratitude this Thanksgiving. Why is this suggestion important? Because, frankly, it sucks to feel alienated, isolated, left out, and disconnected, especially during the holidays. 

Okay, there are two parts to this, so get ready.

Part One: Remember, it’s okay to feel not grateful

So, other people are like, “Rah, Rah. Fun holiday office party. Carolers, how precious. Let’s go shopping. Whee!” and that’s got you feeling like the Grinch. But you’re not a holiday villain; you’re simply a person who had a challenging year. 

It’s okay to acknowledge this and to recognize your grief, apathy, and sadness. You don’t need to stuff your feelings for the benefit of other people. You are not responsible for any other adult’s happiness. Of course, there will be times you feel you have to put on a front, like at work or child-related celebrations, and that’s okay. But the bottom line is, it’s okay to acknowledge the fact that you’re feeling anything but grateful.

Part Two: For every gripe, find a gratitude

Look, we know the world has robbed you of something so incredibly precious, and so it is beyond annoying for us to come along and tell you to be grateful. Also, we just finished telling you it’s okay to not feel grateful. We know, and we don’t offer this suggestion lightly. Finding gratitude may feel like a stretch, but hear us out, we’ve actually put some thought into this.

  • As we acknowledged, finding something to be grateful for doesn’t minimize or erase the difficult thoughts, memories, and emotions you are experiencing. It may simply help to balance your outlook a little.
  • Balancing your outlook is important. Have you ever read our post about the grief lens and its impact on outlook? If not, I can summarize. Basically, grief can make people feel cheated, angry, self-focused, bitter, lonely, isolated, resentful, guilty, sad, anxious, worried, or depressed. What many people fail to realize is that, over time, negativity can have a large impact on a person’s overall worldview. People with a negative outlook may be more likely to find depressing, cynical, and suspicious explanations for events. They may feel as though their lives are globally awful, people are globally awful, they themselves are globally awful, and believe that these realities will never change. 
  • Gratitude has been shown to help. In 2003, Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons conducted a study where participants were asked to keep a weekly journal for nine weeks.  The participants were randomly placed into three different diary groups; in the first  group participants were asked to record up to five things they were grateful or thankful for, in the second group participants were asked to think back on the day and record at least five hassles that occurred in their lives, finally the third group was asked to just record the days events. Despite journaling only once a week, participants in the grateful group reported increased well-being, better health, they exercised more, felt life was better and had increased optimism.
  • Even though Thanksgiving will feel different this year, actively seeking gratitude can be an empowering way to reclaim a part of the holiday for yourself.

Finding gratitude doesn’t have to be complicated.  It’s simple, actually. All you have to do is pay attention to your thoughts and when you catch yourself feeling really negative and pessimistic, think to yourself, “Yes, AND I also have X to be grateful for.” 

I have confidence that you can find something to be grateful for, like a hot cup of coffee, a happy memory, a song you like, your dog, your cat, green bean casserole – you get the picture. Even if you don’t want to make a habit of this whole gratitude thing, just give it a try through Thanksgiving. Because let’s be honest, you don’t want to be caught off guard when some yahoo suggests everyone share one thing they are grateful for at your Thanksgiving dinner.

If you don’t already follow us on Facebook or Instagramnow might be a good time to start. We will be sharing our older holiday support articles on social media and fostering conversation around grief during the holidays. Also, subscribe.

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

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27 Comments on "Grief at Thanksgiving: Gratitude with a grain of salt"

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  1. Shazza Gilbert  November 21, 2017 at 2:22 pm Reply

    7 years later and the holidays still feel like torture every year. I’ve become *that* Aunt. The widow with no children while all my siblings are now married and have kids. The small gratitudes that I can come up with are sometimes all that keeps me going. Other days its not that hard just to be grateful for my family and friends.

    I’m dating again and have a date for New Year’s Eve, which I am finding to be a huge relief. But unless or until I have someone to bring to family gatherings again, it seems like each holiday is just a fresh new hell.

  2. Nancy Becker  November 22, 2017 at 11:54 am Reply

    2.5 years and the holidays still aren’t the same! Dad you are missed each and every day! Love you so much!!! Miss you terribly! Happy Thanksgiving 🦃 in heaven!

  3. Kristi DiFilippo  November 23, 2017 at 8:38 am Reply

    My Dad died unexpectedly on Monday. I’m a grief counselor and work at a hospice. Nothing could prepare me for what i feel now. I hear my own words echoing in my thoughts. We are leaving his chair empty at the table. I told my boys to make sure the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is on this morning, it was his favorite. We will be eating a meal made by a dear friend this afternoon. His funeral is tomorrow, on Black Friday. This day will never be the same.
    Thank you for this site, I have sent so many of my bereaved here in the past. I read your blog now with different eyes.

  4. TammyMorton  November 10, 2018 at 6:49 pm Reply

    My Father Passed Away On 3/22/18 Of CHF @ Norton Brownsboro Hospital. We Just Thought That He Was Going To Be Ok. But He Didn”t Make It After All. It Was a Beautiful Funeral Service. That David Did My Dad’s Funeral Service For My Dad. I am So Glad He Did His Service For My Dad. I Still Him Very Much.

  5. Gretchen  November 13, 2018 at 1:54 pm Reply

    My husband died on the Monday before Thanksgiving last year. He was diagnosed with brain cancer four months earlier and instead of feeling sorry for himself he chose to live each day he had left with gratitude and grace. He never focused on what he was dealt with nor what he’d be missing. Instead he encouraged us ALL to look for the blessings in each day.

    My parents had a huge Thanksgiving at our house every year growing up. We had ten kids and our cousins all had big families. During the Vietnam war my mom invited soldiers from a nearby base to join us – or exchange students – and we had 60-80 people at our house every single year, without a complaint. It was the highlight of my childhood memories. Sadly though, I lost my mom when I was 16, and my dad and a brother before I was 25. Then another brother and sister. And now my husband.

    As we come to this first anniversary – with the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years having been forced to learn to grieve “well,” I am looking forward to Thanksgiving as an important day to be grateful for what we had together. Beautiful times. SO much love. Laughter. And so many precious memories. I will not be focusing on what is missing, but rather on all that we had then and still have now. “What you focus on longest, becomes strongest. Good, or bad.” Try to focus on your sweet memories and not your pain. It’s okay.

  6. Sandy Leary  November 15, 2018 at 1:48 pm Reply

    Our sister passed away this week from cancer. How do we handle Thanksgiving this year and forward? Apparently she had cancer surgery/treatments last year and her last year was filled with follow-up doctor visits–none of us were told she had cancer, surgery, treatments, etc. SHe was rushed to the hospital and told there was nothing else doctors could do–we found out last minute and visited her twice–both visits were great–we even got her to laugh. HOspice house followed–we gave her a few days to settle in and when we showed up for a visit her husband (4th) refused to let us in! Less than a week later she passed. He wrote her obit. And excluded our family completely, didn’t note her maiden name, and made her service private excluding all of us! We are at a loss and would like to honor our sister’s life after she is buried but don’t know what or how to do that. As her siblings we need to honor her, grieve, and move on! We would appreciate suggestions as to how best do this! THANK you!!

    • Jennifer Bergeron  November 15, 2018 at 2:18 pm Reply

      Wow, Sandy, I’m so sorry for your loss, and for having to deal with people acting badly besides. I’d be blinded with anger at that husband for cutting you guys out that way, and I can’t understand what purpose it serves him. Seems like he’d want people who had stories to tell about the person he lost. I was devastated when none of my “friends” came to my sister’s funeral in March. I was a mess already & trying to hold it together for my parents & husband, and would have really appreciated more people who knew her being there.
      You can only express your condolences to him & move along, but you guys need your own ceremony. You could even write your own obituary and put it in the paper. We did that for a friend of ours who passed last year because his mother refused to admit he was gay, so she painted a completely false picture of him in their obit & service. You could all meet at her burial place or, better yet, one of her favorite places to vacation or relax, and have everyone tell stories & memories, read poems or scripture, show pictures, or whatever speaks to you.
      Take care <3

  7. sherri vince  November 20, 2018 at 12:24 pm Reply

    my daughter (forever 34) died in a tragic car accident 8 months ago, leaving me to raise her child. 3 weeks ago my husband died. I DON’T FEEL GRATEFUL, The grief is overwhelming. My family is like everyone for themselves, selfish, life goes on. I don’t want to

    • Audrey  November 21, 2018 at 3:53 am Reply

      I’m so, so sorry. There are no words. Do you have someone to talk to? I am here if you want to talk. ❤️

    • Viv  November 21, 2018 at 7:17 pm Reply

      I’m here for you, too.

  8. Jean Ellison  November 21, 2018 at 9:28 pm Reply

    Both my children are dead my son in 1987 at 15, his sister last year at 53. My partner’s children don’t contact her. Three grandchildren out of 11 keep in some touch. We will eat alone tomorrow.
    But we have each other, our friends, relative health, and love. We are thankful for that.

  9. Glady Doyle  October 13, 2019 at 10:09 pm Reply

    I lost my husband Jan. 31, 2015 and I miss him today just as much as I did then. Sure when I’m at work I don’t have time to think
    I think it is because I’m so busy. I have gone to work so many days with swollen red eyes that are covered with make-up.
    Everyone says I will heal very soon. I lost my step-grandchildren, 10 of them and my 6 great grandchildren.
    Today as I sit alone in this house I used to call home alone and broken. I’m going to celebrate with my youngest son, daughter in law and grandchildren tomorrow. The reason I feel so sad is I haven’t been able to grieve for my eldest son who died in Lake Erie fishing on Aug. 22, 2019. He is biologically my husband’s son but in my heart and his I was his biological mother in every way. I love him the way I do my biological son and he looked up to me as his mother, treated with love like his mother and would never let anyone say he wasn’t my son not even his biological siblings. My biological son and him were as close as brothers my heart broke when I got the news. They all disowned me when my husband passed. He still told me I’ll always be his mother and he loved me very much. I don’t know if he has been buried or not. I know he was cremated I even went with my sisters and a friend to the get together they had at his girlfriend’s. I still can’t believe he’s gone.
    Sorry to be so blunt but I hate all holidays but I put on a brave face go to my son’s then when I leave I feel this big lump in
    my throat and pain in my heart. I miss my husband like I lost him today and only shed tears when I’m alone.
    I speak to my husband every day and now to my son.

  10. Essa  October 15, 2019 at 10:15 am Reply

    I lost to of my brothers and my family in 2014 and i feel bad until now ,i can not forget them 😔
    I want to speak and cry ..just😔

  11. Margaret Tollefson  November 26, 2019 at 12:14 pm Reply

    Your site has been so helpful. God bless you all for your understanding hearts and words.

  12. Julie Sciligo  November 26, 2019 at 1:07 pm Reply

    I love your posts. This one in particular is so funny and TRUE! I’m grateful for this site. Thank you.

  13. Claire Dixon  November 27, 2019 at 1:28 am Reply

    I hate Thanksgiving. I am not by nature a grateful person because I’ve lost a lot of loved ones. *Not everyone who doesn’t want to move on is suicidal; some just like to wallow, & I’m in that category.* I want to live but to be sad as well. I hope you understand. Christmas is the only holiday I care about, & not because I was born on Christmas Eve but because I love 1) trees, 2) lights, & 3) the fact that many carols came from ancient Europe, not so much because of its real meaning. I’m not an atheist but even though I’m a believer in God’s existence, I’m very angry at Him for making life challenging. I don’t believe in resilience. I believe in perpetual mourning. Being frustrated about life’s unpredictability (ironically) keeps me going. My anger gives me energy & my sadness is a good way to avoid people I don’t want to see (I live in a life care facility, & most of the residents are prudes who exasperate me with their STRONG religious beliefs, their tolerance of adversity, & the way they bully me to “grow up”, “be happy”, “be normal”, etc.) I like to live on my terms, not theirs, & even my relatives can’t make me want to “move on”. Booo, hiss to Thanksgiving, for me personally.

  14. Claire Dixon  November 27, 2019 at 1:32 am Reply

    P.S. As I said, please don’t be offended by my wanting to focus on my sorrow & grief. I am a pessimist & it takes too much effort to change. Just because I was born on Christmas Eve doesn’t mean I have to trust God in times of adversity. In fact, the more I “go through” (more like suffer from, in my opinion), the less I trust Him. He exists…but not for me to trust Him.

  15. Regina King  November 27, 2019 at 1:45 am Reply

    I feel for all who are grieving this holiday season, I lost my mother and my best friend a year and a half apart. Although it was 15 and 13’years ago, I still miss them terribly. Everyone’s grief is unique, don’t rush it. Life will never be the same again.

  16. Genevieve Severs  November 27, 2019 at 8:59 am Reply

    My life has been turned upside down my youngest son Freddie died February 19 2017 at 35 years old my son Marty died July 1 2018 at 47 years old I just don’t have it in me I just wish I could sleep in till January 2 It is Also my son Freddie Birthday December 17

  17. Barbara Burek  November 27, 2019 at 9:21 am Reply

    This is my first big holiday without my husband who died unexpectedly in January of this year 2 weeks before our 49th wedding anniversary. My husband never smoked or drank and worked out 4 days a week So cherish every moment you have and make lots of memories. My heart aches and always will. A friend gave me a plaque that reads “Your wings were ready but my heart was not”. How true this is. We will have an empty chair at the table per the request of my youngest grandchild.

  18. V L Sharp  November 27, 2019 at 12:56 pm Reply

    This is Year 5 and I thought it would get easier (sorta). After 30 days of hospice, my partner of 40 years died the day after Thanksgiving….he wanted to ‘smell’ Thanksgiving and I am forever grateful I was able to give him that. This is the first year that the dated actually falls ON Thanksgiving…and i am struggling, he LOVED the holidays. I am grateful for a large family on both sides, all willing to pick me up if I falter. I miss him so….but I will choose to face the day with gratitude and love.

  19. Heidi Ernst  November 27, 2019 at 1:55 pm Reply

    I lost my husband of 30 years on 10/25/2019. I am finding myself lonesome and surrounded by intense sadness and not really caring about anything. Some days I feel that if I died it would be OK. I am not suicidal but living without him seems so hopeless and impossible. I am grateful that I had the wonderful years with him. The finality of his death is overwhelming.

  20. susan Neuhoff  November 27, 2019 at 4:08 pm Reply

    I am so sorry for everyones suffering! My mom just died this month and I cant do Thanksgiving. However, my daughter is here with me so I am going to have to do something. I am really going to have to fake it through the holidays this year. This will be my day to be selfish and then I will pull it together. I hope.

    • Michelle Plunkett  November 27, 2019 at 8:15 pm Reply

      Im so sorry for your loss. I lost my mom on November 12th this month. I know how ur feeling. Im trying to keep it together to for my baby girl. Even though my best friend is in heaven.

  21. Twanisha Parnell  November 28, 2019 at 8:13 am Reply

    My Sincere Condolences for u all I Lost my Beloved Mother October 5th just last month and I’m truly devastated about the Holidays. I just cant seem to get it together.

  22. Zachary Landrum  November 28, 2019 at 9:12 am Reply

    I lost my mother around Christmastime of 2018 and her bad health was starting to get noticed around Thanksgiving. Because of that, I am very hesitant to participate in family events around the holidays this year as it is going to be the one year anniversary of her unfortunate death. But my other family members seem to ignore this issue and think I am just being selfish. I don’t know what to do about this. I want to tell them about how I am feeling, but I am almost certain that they will ignore my grieving and reflect the issues back onto me to make themselves look better.

  23. Vartan Agnerian  November 30, 2019 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Another very helpful and clearly explained article about the consequences and the immense effects of grief ‘ A year on the path of widowhood’ everything – everything is different including me ‘ Through my tears I do try to be grateful for all those years I was blessed to have had with my husband and had our family unit together’ but once that video of my mind starts rewinding’ going all the way back to our first meeting and introduction ‘and then our married years with it’s ups and downs’ his forever absence’ him not being alongside me no more’ becomes more emphasized ‘ more obvious that from now on ‘ I’ll be just by myself no matter where I am’ no matter which family group I’m with’ my new reality of one’ . . . . . Laura’

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