Thanksgiving Struggles with Sadness

Painful Thanksgiving memories

Sometimes I feel like I’m at least 30 years older than I actually am, looking back at Thanksgivings of the past and muttering to myself, “Remember when …?”. Those are the moments that make me feel far older than I actually am. As human beings, our brains can taunt us relentlessly.  With Thanksgiving looming, my mind keeps tossing holiday memories at me with crisp fluidity of a slide show. I remember:

  • When we ate in shifts at my grandmother’s house (where I grew up) because everybody couldn’t fit around the kitchen table.
  • How exciting it was when great-uncle Kenny came over for Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Great-grandma Jean holding her cigarette in one hand and her cup of coffee in the other, the kitchen light reflecting off her nail polish.
  • Debates about whether or not the Turkey was dry.
  • Chris, as my boyfriend, coming over for dessert.
  • The first Thanksgiving meal I ate at my boyfriend’s house.
  • The Thanksgiving we went to the house of Chris’ uncle in New Jersey.
  • The Thanksgiving we went to his aunt’s house in upstate New York.
  • Shivering at a Thanksgiving day parade in New York City snd deciding never to do that again.
  • The first Thanksgiving turkey I cooked in our rented townhouse after we got married.
  • The Thanksgiving I spent in a physical rehab center and Chris brought in catered Thanksgiving food for us to share.
  • Setting my Thanksgiving table in fine china and crystal and how beautiful it looked.
  • Planning every detail to make everything for Thanksgiving dinner from scratch.
  • Celebrating the first Thanksgiving we had a child of our own.
  • After we had 3 children and my disability worsened, we catered in most of the meal.
  • How every year at some point on Thanksgiving Day, Chris would tell me he was most thankful for having me in his life.
  • How devastated I was the first Thanksgiving after my mom had passed.
  • Not knowing how I was going to survive that first Thanksgiving after Chris was killed.

We like to think of happy memories. Unfortunately, the sad ones can always find a way into our thoughts.

Grief and the holiday

That’s the thing with grief … you feel like there’s no way you’re going to survive, and yet you do. To be brutally honest, part of me didn’t really care if I survived.

I’m going to take a moment to say what I’ve said many times in the past – I am no expert about this, meaning I am not a grief counselor or a mental health professional. I am just somebody who has an awful lot of experience in grieving.

Grieving the love of my life and the plans we still had together. Grieving my parents. My in-laws. Grandparents, assorted other relatives, friends. Grieving everything my disability has stolen from me, including the ability to walk, to drive, to go places and do things that brought me happiness or even just mattered. Grieving the loss of my ability to do things with my kids outside the house.

Yes, I have a lot of experience grieving.

I think my best advice is that you give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re going to feel when you remember Thanksgiving in the past when things were better. And then try to understand that just because it’s different now, doesn’t mean you can’t have a good holiday.

Maybe you’re out of a job because of pandemic related closings. Could be that you are awaiting results of crucial medical tests or are facing frightening surgery. A broken relationship or estrangement could have you feeling there is little to be thankful about. No matter who or what you’re grieving, most of the values, emotions, traditions and sentiments like gratitude, appreciation, comfort and togetherness that are typically associated with Thanksgiving can actually seem hideously awkward.

Maybe Thanksgiving has never been your thing. Or maybe you’d really love to feel all the traditional holiday feelings but it’s just not happening. Social media can make it all worse, because most people tend to post carefully edited and cropped imaging that project holiday ideals. Add to that the uplifting and heartwarming holiday messaging on all types of media, and it’s really easy to understand why you can end up feeling like he Thanksgiving version of the Grinch who stole Christmas.

When you’re trying to get through Thanksgiving Day

Well, Thanksgiving is just one day. You don’t get some kind of life grade on how you spend it, and unless you’re some big celebrity, how you spend the holiday will not make the evening news or your local newspaper.  So stop pressuring yourself about it.

Maybe you’re pressuring yourself because you feel you have to create a picture-perfect holiday for your kids and for whatever reason your heart isn’t in it this year. Maybe you’re missing a loved one who was so much a part of Thanksgiving for you that you just can’t imagine having the celebration without that person present. Could be that your physical or financial circumstances have become such that you just can’t do whatever it is you want to do. Or maybe it’s pandemic restrictions that are cramping your style. Perhaps the last thing you feel is grateful.

If that lack of feeling a sense of gratitude is making you feel distinctly separated from the ideal Thanksgiving vibe, remember that you don’t have to choose between feeling grief or feeling grateful.  You are absolutely entitled to feel both. I am sad about a lot of things on the holiday, but I am still tremendously grateful for my children, our home, and the fact that we have food on the table.

Please also don’t berate yourself if you think you shouldn’t enjoy the holiday because of loss or circumstances, and yet you find yourself thankful of heart or happy after all. The absence of rules about grief cut in both directions. You are absolutely entitled to your feelings, whatever they may be.

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