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Rethinking Thanksgiving: Five Tips for Finding Joy and Hope in the Midst of Change

10 Nov 2020 — 4 min read

By Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP Vice President of Research


Flying Without Visibility: Coping When You Can’t See the Path Ahead

Thanksgiving is coming. Chances are, it’s going to feel different this year, and maybe in some ways you’re not looking forward to. But don’t worry. We can do this!

I don’t know about you, but my family and I are talking a lot about what this year’s Thanksgiving will be like. We talk about being in the midst of a pandemic and feeling seriously stressed. We can’t gather or travel to be together as usual. We have lost friends and family to COVID-19 and haven’t fully processed that. For my family, it will be the first Thanksgiving without my mother. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things. We need to rethink Thanksgiving. Being optimistically pragmatic, I am thinking of it as an opportunity for growth and change.

When I look back on 2020 – if I must – as tough as it has been, I realize we have created moments of connection, motivation and joy. Socializing has morphed into virtual events with small birthday parties, happy hours with friends, and regularly scheduled virtual visits with different people. I do miss the chit-chat of life. We also managed some escapes to the beach, the woods and the park.

Holidays are more formal moments filled with expectation and all kinds of feelings. Like most of us, our usual Thanksgiving is not happening this year. We will probably be home, the five of us at our dining room table, instead of fourteen of us talking over each other at a giant table. I know some people will be alone and will hopefully find ways to connect with others on the phone, or virtually. It’s also okay to just sit this holiday out, if that feels healthy to you. I have to admit, I also feel some relief as I look forward to not sitting in traffic for hours, and a quieter Thanksgiving Day. As much as I look forward to holidays, I always have a little bit of holiday dread. I believe I am not alone in that, and that whatever I feel is okay.

Let’s be honest and recognize that for most of us, this year will be different. We may not be able to break bread with our usual crew, or we may not have the money for a feast. We may be missing loved ones. Many of us have mixed feeling about the holiday altogether, such as people of native heritage, for whom Thanksgiving can be a time of resurfacing trauma.  

So, what can be done to make this season more than just manageable, or even something to look forward to? The first step is to take a breath. Acknowledge that 2020 will be different. Here’s some additional food for thought (pun intended); some ideas I have shared with people in my therapy practice:

Rethink the holiday: Consider what the holiday means to you and how you would like to spend your time. If the holiday is about turkeys and pumpkin pie, cook up a storm. If you like to decorate, go all out: front door and throughout your home. Maybe you don’t care about Thanksgiving and want it to be just another day; that’s fine. For us, we will start with a quick virtual toast with the entire family. Then we will sign off and those of us together in person will enjoy a turkey and sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, and end with pumpkin pie and ice cream in my parents’ sundae glasses. I miss my parents and it is hard to imagine Thanksgiving without them, so I am planning to do something we all enjoyed together, to help me keep them present. It’s funny how the little things can make all the difference.

Connect: Reach out to those who energize your celebratory spirit. Share the planning with those you will spend your time with and prepare together. My sisters and I have been discussing our plans, and I am getting ideas from friends. It can be painful if you are alone. If you are so inclined, I am amazed at all the online communities for sharing hobbies, thoughts and even the holidays. I personally have joined a group for people growing out their grey hair, and I’m surprised at how it’s empowering. Check in with friends who will be alone, and remind them that you are there. Ask them about their plans, and maybe send a card or some special food.

Set boundaries: To reduce stress, it’s okay to bow out of situations that increase your anxiety, depression, anger and general distress. This year I am focused on my immediate family. I’m not going to spend time finding ways to connect with everyone throughout the day. If you feel tugged at by family members, decide what you would like, and do that! You don’t have to explain. Just be kind.

Revise and renew: Gather new ideas for finding meaning and joy, or to replenish. Maybe change up what dishes you use, the food you make, or the lighting where you eat. Wear a special outfit or dress down for a change. Go around the table and say something about how you feel; how you are coping with COVID-19; or what you are looking forward to when we get to a new normal. Start a tradition with a new thought or prayer, a special dessert, or a reconceptualized decoration.

Keep going: Even in those times when you are having trouble pivoting or feeling positive, push on until things change…because they will. We all experience difficult times. Eventually, they do pass. Reach out to family, friends, doctors, clergy or online communities for support when you need it. Take up a new hobby, meditate, or learn yoga. Find a therapist, support group, or start journaling. I have decided I am going to do my best to support the people who have supported me over the past year.

The holidays are coming, and they will be different this year, no doubt. While there is comfort in tradition, there can be hope in change. We can do this!

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