By Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
Thanksgiving, which is celebrated in this country across cultures, religions, ethnicity, geography and socio-economic levels, is an emotional mile marker. It brings to the table and to the mind and heart, those we love, those we will call to exchange loving sentiments, and those we love but who we have lost this year or many years ago.
Grieving For A Loved One Is Difficult During The Holidays.
Some say that the first Thanksgiving is the most difficult because the absence of the loved one is as startling as it is dreaded. It reminds us almost viscerally of the reality of the loss.
For those who have suffered a sudden and traumatic loss, Thanksgiving can feel impossible with the pain they are holding.
Many report that they hardly know how they got through the day as they felt a combination of numbing, anger and disbelief, even as they cooked the turkey, sat with relatives, held babies and connected with family as best they could.
Still others say that the passage of years doesn’t lessen the tears or heartache. There is something about the Holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, that bring back feelings of love and loss as you look around the table.
A New Perspective on Grieving.
One way to handle Thanksgiving if we are grieving for a loved one is to reconsider the meaning of grieving.
Whereas early psychological theory always associated grieving with “letting go,” newer relational perspectives remind us that our sense of self is based on the relationships we have and those that we carry within us.
From this newer perspective, the role of grieving is not to “let go” but “ to hold on” in a different way.
Grieving becomes a journey to preserve our attachment to a lost loved one, to connect in our head and our heart in a way that transcends loss.
How is This Possible?
This is not easy, simple or quick, but it is a psychologically possible and emotionally restorative.
It is not incompatible with the holidays. In fact, it may be helped by the holidays.
It means going on while holding on-with tears, without closure, with a brick of pain in your pocket, with a mix of memories, with the fear of forgetting– as well as with the need to remember the stories, the names, the laughter, the moments, the loved one.
As Louise Kaplan invites in her book, No Voice is Ever Wholly Lost, it means that the dialogue with a loved one can go on and become a way of maintaining psychological connection.
It means having the realization that the physical death of your loved one is not the end of your attachment.
Grieving for My Mother This Thanksgiving
This will be the first Thanksgiving without my mother. She died at 95 years, a few days after Christmas when she saw her great granddaughter for the first time. She had waited.
- Throughout these months, it has been too easy to forget that she is gone.
- I have often been riding in my car thinking of something funny that I have to tell her, only to remember with some tears that I’m not going to tell her anymore.
- Sometimes, I might remember something I could have changed or some way that she struggled. The sadness washes over me. It passes…
- Sometimes I ask her if she can believe what is going on. Sometimes I ask for her help.
- When I can, I remind myself that I am not going to forget the stories she told, the songs she loved or how much I loved making her laugh.
This Thanksgiving, in my heart and mind and despite my missing her, she will be there. As a person who loved to cook and loved watching family and friends eat even more than cooking, she will be remembered in the stories told and in the family rituals carried on by friends, children and grandchildren.
At some point when I am reminding my children of something they already know, they will tell me,” You are turning into Nauna.” At other times I will hear myself speaking and think the same thing.
But isn’t that the way it goes? Isn’t that the way we carry those we love?
Grieving is never easy but it can be a process of re-connection even during the Holidays.
This Thanksgiving, hold on to those you love who surround you and carry those you love who you have lost—They will be an enduring presence in your life.
Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist. She is Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Doctoral Program of Long Island University and on the faculty of the Post-Doctoral Programs of the Derner Institute of Adelphi University. Suzanne Phillips, PsyD and Dianne Kane are the authors of Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress. Learn more about their work at couplesaftertrauma.com .
Visit Suzanne's Facebook Page HERE.