Grief at Thanksgiving: Gratitude with a grain of salt

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.