Coping With the First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One 

Navigating Thanksgiving when you're missing a loved one can be hard, but these simple tips can help.

Updated October 11, 2023
Grandfather hugging granddaughter in dinning room at Thanksgiving

It can be difficult to adapt to life after the loss of a loved one, and it may seem like things will never go back to the way they once were. This can be especially true during the holiday season, when friends and family are supposed to come together to celebrate.

Navigating your first Thanksgiving without a loved one after they have passed can be difficult and confusing. Depending on the circumstances, you might not even feel ready to celebrate, let alone know how to do so. If you are heading into Thanksgiving missing a loved one, we want you to know that there are coping strategies that can help you through this challenging time.

Ways to Cope During the First Thanksgiving Missing Loved One

There is no right or wrong way to cope with your grief or any other emotions you may be experiencing after the loss of a loved one. What works for others might not work for you, and vice versa, and that's okay. The elements that help people cope and feel supported as they're grieving are as unique among individuals as personalities are.

Anything that makes you feel happier, less stressed, or more like your old self is an effective coping strategy. It can involve starting a mindfulness journal to explore the things in your life that you are grateful for, or it can entail giving yourself some time to cry and sit with your emotions.

Finding coping strategies that work well for you can be especially important around the holidays, and even more so if you have lost a loved one recently. During these difficult times, it's important to take some time to understand what emotions you are feeling and what needs you might have. Then, do your best to be a friend to yourself and meet yourself wherever you are in your grief.

Decide What Kind of Gathering Is Right for You

Depending on how close you were to the family member who passed away, how long it has been since they passed, and how you're feeling currently, you might decide that you don't want to have a large or elaborate Thanksgiving.

Or, you might feel the need to have a bigger event and bring all of your friends and family together to comfort and support each other at this difficult time. Check in with yourself to learn more about your wants and needs.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Do you have the spirits to be around a large group of people or a small one?
  • Do you feel an obligation to host Thanksgiving because you have in the past and is it something that you actually want this year?
  • Do you think attending a Thanksgiving event would support your mental and emotional health, or do you think it would cause fatigue and additional stress?

Then, do what's right for you. If you want to celebrate Thanksgiving, but don't have the energy to be around a large group of people, then only have your closest friends and family members over for support. If you feel like having all of your loved ones together, then invite the lot, and ask them to bring a dish or help in the kitchen so that you don't feel overwhelmed.

Reach Out to Loved Ones and See How They Feel

After you check in with yourself, you might also want to check in with those around you. Ask your family members and close friends how they're feeling about the upcoming holiday and how (or if) they feel like getting together.

This might also help you decide what kind of Thanksgiving is right for you. Maybe they feel the same you do and just want to have a small get-together. Or, maybe they are feeling up to hosting the event this year and can take some of the weight off of your shoulders.

This can help you gauge how others are feeling about celebrating the first Thanksgiving without a loved one. And, it might even help you lean on each other for support.

Give Yourself Time to Mentally and Emotionally Prepare

If you are hosting or attending a Thanksgiving event, it can be helpful to take some time a week or so beforehand to prepare yourself. Family members and friends at the event might ask you how you are coping or bring up memories about the loved one who passed away. These subjects are sensitive and might cause you to feel heightened emotions.

Family supporting each other while celebrating thanksgiving

A Simple Way to Prepare Yourself for Thanksgiving Conversations: 

One thing you can do to help prepare yourself for these moments is to ask yourself the questions you think others might bring up. Then, prepare responses that you can use on the day of the event that you feel comfortable with.

For example, if a family member says, "This Thanksgiving doesn't feel the same," you can say, "No, it doesn't, but that's okay," or whatever response feels authentic to you.

When you have a response prepared, it can offer a sense of comfort because you know you can return to it whenever you need it. And, it may help keep emotions at bay because you have already rehearsed a reply you feel comfortable sharing.

Set Boundaries If You Need or Want Them

You are always allowed to set boundaries in your life, especially after the loss of a loved one. If you attend a Thanksgiving event and want to put boundaries about certain topics in place, you should do so to protect your own well-being.

There are many different ways to set a boundary. For example, if you host a Thanksgiving dinner and call or text people to invite them over, you can let them know during that conversation that you would prefer certain topics not to be brought up the day of. Or, if during the Thanksgiving event someone brings up a topic you aren't comfortable with, simply tell them that you don't feel like talking about that subject right now.

Quick Tip

Even if you aren't the host of a Thanksgiving celebration, you are still allowed to have boundaries. If you're a guest at someone else's Thanksgiving event, you can also ask the host for support and ask the guests to respect your personal wishes.

Take Breaks When You Need Them

Whether you're hosting Thanksgiving or attending someone else's dinner or event, take breaks when you need them. Make sure to take breaks for both physical and emotional reasons.

If you're helping in the kitchen and start to feel fatigued, go and sit down. If people start to talk about the loved one that passed away and you start to feel sad or overwhelmed, find some peace in a quiet room for a bit. And, if the whole evening just becomes too much, you're allowed to leave whenever you need to.

Need to Know

Even if you have mentally prepared yourself beforehand or gone over scenarios in your head to prep you for the day, you can't predict exactly how you'll feel at the event. It's perfectly normal to feel sad, guilty, drained, or any other emotion. If it becomes overwhelming at any point, it's okay to step back.

Choose a Way to Honor the Family Member

Your first Thanksgiving missing a loved one just might not feel the same as it usually does, and that's normal. You don't have to act like everything is business as usual, because it's not, and other family members that are present probably feel that way, too.

One way to address the loss that you and your family may be feeling is to pay tribute to the family member who is no longer with you. This might help others at your Thanksgiving event to know that you're all thinking of your loved one on that day. And, it can encourage people to talk about them and share their feelings with one another when they're missing loved ones.

Happy family making a toast while sitting at dining table during Thanksgiving

Some Ways to Honor the Family Member at Thanksgiving Are:

  • Ask everyone to bring a photo of the loved one and create a scrapbook page.
  • Raise a toast in their honor.
  • Say a prayer together.
  • Share a sentimental story about them.
  • Make their favorite dish.
  • Pay your respects before the family gathering.
  • Save their favorite seat at the table.
  • Have a moment of silence before the meal.
  • Encourage everyone to wear the loved one's favorite color.
  • Listen to their favorite music.
  • Donate to a cause that mattered to your loved one.
  • Watch old home movies that show good times with your loved one.
  • Have everyone share one thing they are thankful for about them.
Quick Tip

If all of your guests seem to be in a good headspace after the loss of your loved one, consider making place cards for your Thanksgiving meal using pictures of each guest with the person you lost. This can bring back great memories and stories to honor this ever-important person. 

Allow Yourself to Do Things That Bring You Joy

After the loss of a loved one, it may seem difficult to have fun again and enjoy the aspects of life that you did before, especially around the holidays. You might even feel guilty when you do experience joy or laughter because it can feel like a betrayal of the person that you lost.

However, you are allowed to enjoy life again and do your best to celebrate holidays in a way that is comforting. It might take some time for old hobbies to feel fun, and get-togethers with friends might not feel as fulfilling as they did before, and that's all right.

Give yourself time to rediscover things that make you happy, and that includes celebrating Thanksgiving, as well as finding activities around the holiday when you may have some extra time on your hands.

You might find that the same activities bring you joy, or you might discover a love for new ones. It can seem hard to go for a walk or put on some music, but when you do so, you are making a choice to support your well-being.

Some Activities You Might Find Enjoyable:

  • Cooking your favorite food
  • Painting a festive picture
  • Taking a walk to get some fresh air
  • Enjoying a musical performance 
  • Journaling about the highs of the season
  • Scrapbooking memories
  • Going to church if you believe in a specific religion 
  • Exercising to show love to your body
  • Meditating to give yourself mental rest
Fast Fact

The simple act of getting outside and soaking in some sunshine can bring a natural mood boost. Research shows that sunlight triggers the body to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate a person's emotions. If you are looking to find cheer during times of sadness, partaking in any of the above activities outside can help to raise your spirits.

During a Thanksgiving missing a loved one, try your best to allow yourself to savor the joyful moments, and encourage your loved ones who are celebrating with you to do the same.

Find a Sense of Support to Turn To After the Event

Have you found a way to support your emotional health and overall well-being since the loss of your loved one? If you haven't yet, it might be time to, especially if the holidays bring several of those deep feelings to the surface.

There are several support groups, both online and in-person, for people to join who have lost a loved one and that may be going through similar experiences. You can also explore therapy options, or visit any mental professional to help you process and cope with everything that you have been through.

If you don't feel ready to join a therapy program or support group, that's all right. You can turn to friends and family members that you trust and feel connected to for a sense of social support. Set up a weekly get-together or phone call to give you opportunities to vent, decompress, and reminisce.

Two young women walking in park after Thanksgiving lunch

The First Holidays Without a Loved One Are Tough

It can be difficult to celebrate a holiday dedicated to giving thanks when you're still grieving the loss of a loved one. You can find a way to honor their memory by reflecting on the joy they brought into your life and expressing gratitude for all of the good times you had with them. And, it might feel nice to invite others to do the same.

If you decide you aren't up for celebrating Thanksgiving the first year after a loved one has passed, that's perfectly okay. And, it's also okay if you find it more comforting to host the kind of celebration you've done for years. What's important is that you listen to your own needs and try not to push yourself beyond your mental and emotional bandwidth.

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Coping With the First Thanksgiving Without Your Loved One