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How to muddle through Thanksgiving with an empty seat at the table

I talked with experts about how to navigate a time of mandated joy when we’ve lost someone we love. Here are a few ideas.

Here are some tips for getting through the holidays when you have lost someone.Adobe stock/J.M. Image Factory - stock.adobe

I’m not ready for this. I feel vaguely unprepared every holiday season, which seems to creep up on the heels of Halloween and leaves me wondering if there will still be onions on the Market Basket shelves by the time I arrive. But this year, I’m really not ready: It’s my first holiday season without my mom, who died in June.

My mom. The one who once dressed me in matching ribbons and smocked dresses every Thanksgiving. Who insisted my brother and I serenade the family in my grandparents’ front room in Lowell with selections from “Annie Get Your Gun” after dinner. Who lectured me about double-dipping into the shrimp dip all the way from Acton up 495 to the Lowell Connector. Who would have already bought my kids their holiday gifts and had the turkey ready to pick up at Roche Brothers a week ago.


Now I’m stepping into the matriarch role, and really, no thanks. I don’t want to be the one to buy the tickets for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Chevalier. I don’t want to be the one to remind my dad to order a turkey for us — or to just give us the money. Death forces us into dynamics we want no part of, like being shoved onto a roller coaster before you have time to turn back and say no. I’m a parent, I’m someone else’s mom now, and I’m still not ready.

If you’re a parent missing your own parents this holiday — due to COVID or some other inevitable twist of fate handed down by life — you’re not alone. I’ve talked to some of you who are going all out this season, trying to manufacture tons of joy where there is none to compensate. Other people are retreating inward. One reader told me, “I just want to take a bath.” I think it’s important that we’re open and vulnerable about this. It’s OK to embrace duality, to be bereft and grateful at the same time, even if they don’t make Christmas ornaments or throw pillows for those emotions.


“People need acknowledgment that what we’re still going through is very hard. There’s a sense culturally now that kids are being vaccinated that it feels like we may be coming to a different point,” says Laura Tuach, assistant director of field education in the Office of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School and a mom of young twins. “If you haven’t lost anyone, and you have adult kids, and everybody has been vaccinated and has been fine, then life has moved on to a certain extent.”

But not for everyone.

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“There’s an expectation that everybody’s celebrating, and at Thanksgiving, everybody’s grateful. And, you know, you’re sitting with your family going, ‘I’m not so thankful that someone died and they’re not here,’” says Dr. Nancy Frumer Styron, clinical director at the Children’s Room, a grief support center for children, teens, and families in Arlington. “All the things like decorations, food, and traditions can be both comforting and triggering.”

I talked to Tuach and Frumer Styron about how to navigate a time of mandated joy when we feel hollow inside. Here are a few ideas for muddling through.

Don’t try to overschedule yourself into happiness. Instead of compulsively loading up on new traditions, events, and activities, think deliberately about where you want to expend time and energy.


“It’s time to be a little bit creative and not move back into a very high-stress, unconscious experience of the craziness that the holidays can be, but rather to go in very intentionally: What do I want to create with my family? What do I want to do differently if I’ve lost someone?” says Tuach, who has experienced the loss of a parent. “I’m hearing a real desire for being very intentional about what you hope to create this year with family and loved ones. That’s my plan.”

When someone dies, “There’s the urge to almost overcompensate and make it the happiest holiday now more than ever — and that’s almost a guarantee that it’s going to be worse, because you’re working so hard to make it OK,” says Frumer Styron.

Instead of exhausting yourself, take this year slow. You don’t have to go bigger and better, unless you know it will make you actually feel better, too.

Have a game plan and an exit strategy. Frumer Styron encourages clients to plan ahead by brainstorming their celebrations: Will you stay home? Go out? Do something completely different?

“Sometimes there’s pressure from family: ‘We know someone died, so you should spend the holiday with us, or you should do this or that.’ Everybody has a view. But you should be in sync with your own family,” she says.

Often, in the miasma of grief and busy-ness, people don’t come up with a strategy until too late, and they’re swept along in someone else’s uncomfortable, too big, too small, or too sad celebrations.


So be transparent. Let people know your plans, and plan a bailing strategy if things get overwhelming and you just want to hide under a blanket.

“You need to be flexible, because if you wake up that morning and it feels like too much, you need to be able to change the plan. Let other people know: ‘My plan is to come over for dessert, but I’m also going to see how we’re doing that day.’ It may be that you just want to sit on your bed and look at pictures. You have permission to change your mind,” she says.

Experiment with traditions. Maybe your mom made gravy every year. This year, see how it feels without it. If you miss it, add it back next year. And, instead of trying to perfectly replicate what the missing person did, try new ways to honor them: Light a candle. Leave a place setting at the table. Go around the room and share a memory.

If that feels like too much, “Write down the memories and put them in a bowl, then pass the bowl around and share them. If kids are shy or people don’t want to do that, have someone else read them — it’s a little less threatening if someone doesn’t want to speak,” Frumer Styron says. Kids might enjoy decorating a vase, making a photo collage, or creating a memory box.


Volunteer. Helping others is a great way to get out of your own house and your own head, and to honor someone you miss.

“Sometimes volunteering and doing something for others is a way to pay tribute to the person who died. It could be going to a soup kitchen, it could be gathering toys to bring to the fire department, or contributing money in someone’s name,” Frumer Styron says.

Don’t hide your emotions from kids. Don’t feel like there’s not space for sadness just because it’s a holiday. It’s OK to name your grief, to talk about the person you miss, and to let your kids see you upset. It helps them feel like there’s room to grieve, too.

“If you want to create more memories in your children, especially if they’re young, about the person who died, you’re going to have to talk about them — and that’s actually a good thing,” Frumer Styron says.

Embrace duality. Don’t feel guilty for smiling or ashamed for crying. You can experience joy and pain during the same season, hour, even moment. There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate a holiday.

“You can celebrate and still feel lost,” Tuach says.

And for those of you who aren’t dealing with acute loss this season — don’t forget to reach out to friends who are. Grief lingers long after the rituals end and the guests go home. I always suspected it, and now it’s my turn to know it.

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Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.