Happy Thanksgiving: Don’ts and Dos

IMG_3029When making bereavement phone calls around Thanksgiving to those who have had a loved one die, I often ask, “Is it okay for me to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving?”

I don’t want my “Happy Thanksgiving” to be an autopilot greeting or a token farewell. As I try to be supportive, I don’t want to assume anything. This year, this holiday, is different in the worst way for the family I’m contacting.

It’s the small things that are missed most after a death. Sharing coffee. Joking about the year the garbage disposal clogged on the potato peelings (though it wasn’t funny back then!) Taking the evening walk after the big meal. Complaining about the whacky, out-of-town uncle who always arrives late with a lame excuse and a cheap bottle of wine. Washing dishes together after everyone has left. Playing board games with the kids, even when the kids are now adults.

Aren’t Thanksgivings—and other holidays—a struggle under “normal” circumstances? The family get-togethers may be charming on television commercials, but can be alarming in reality. Old arguments and new tensions are avoided most of the year, but Christmas or New Year parties forces everyone into the same room. On that Thanksgiving where your kid spends the day with the family of his or her “special friend” . . . you say you understand (and you do, but you don’t). There’s the call that comes from the loved one stationed overseas. Or the phone that never rings. We fret over carving a turkey, but holidays have a way of carving our hearts.

Even before the death that broke your heart this year or last, every holiday is a reminder of loss. Around the family table, a beloved grandparent’s death is remembered for a lifetime. The stillborn child who is still hard to mention is never forgotten, especially at festive family events.

Here are some don’ts for those grieving during holidays . . .

  • Don’t be ashamed of your tears.
  • Don’t feel like you have to participate in everything.
  • Don’t feel bad about arriving late or leaving early.
  • Don’t feel like you have to explain your actions or attitudes. If someone doesn’t understand your loss and grief, it’s their problem, not yours.

And some dos . . .

  • Do use your loved one’s name. (And if it’s too hard to say their name, then believe it will be easier next year.)
  • Do tell the wonderful and silly stories about your loved one that are treasures to share. (And if it’s too hard to tell those tales, then believe it will be easier next year.)
  • Do consider creating a special display of mementos or put out a favorite picture in a prominent place during holidays. It may encourage others to ask questions about your loved one.
  • Do spend time with those who “get it.” Have a phone date with the best friend that lives far away. Take a walk or window shop with the person who honors your silence and pain and tears (or lack of tears).

Be gentle with yourself. You are hurting. No one else can see the gaping wound in your soul, but you feel like it won’t stop bleeding. Sorrow is as physical as it is emotional and spiritual.

Be honest with yourself. If guilt or regret or anger linger about what you did or did not do, or what your loved one did or did not do, don’t ignore these normal reactions. While the holidays may not be the best time for grief counseling, they can be a good time to schedule an appointment for a few weeks later.

Be truthful with yourself. The grief you feel is part of a lifelong love. In love, there is ongoing healing but never closure.

I hope it’s okay with you . . . for me to wish you a gentle, honest, and truthful Happy Thanksgiving.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I do wish I’d had your list of dos and don’ts decades ago when my mom passed. I think I would have felt a little better about myself. I wish I’d had someone say “The grief you feel is part of a lifelong love. In love, there is ongoing healing but never closure.” Thank you.

    I have not really considered how my well intentioned words during the holidays might affect those grieving or suffering for many reasons. I have tried to be sensitive to the possibility that the person might not observe the same traditions I do but I had not considered within the holiday, there would be wounds to be cared for. I will remember to ask from now on.

    Hope it’s okay to wish you a Blessed Thanksgiving too. May your contractor finish before the completion date.

    • Thanks, Cherrie! ‘Tis totally okay to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving! And may your day today also be Happy!

      Our contractor told me on Tuesday they could be done in two weeks. Which I interpreted as slightly over three weeks . . . ‘cuz I’m an optimistic guy. Thanks for reading and responding to my “stuff.”

  2. Once again, Larry, you have said just the right thing. This is Holiday Season 2 without Jim. I’m not sure it’s easier … Still very different. Working on spending time with family and friends who “get it” and then remembering all the wonderful holidays I spent with Jim. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

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