How to handle Thanksgiving after a death in the family

OPINION: It's hard during the holidays to be the same after the death of a loved one. Here are some ideas on how to get through it.

(Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The first Thanksgiving after my father passed was really hard. It was the first holiday in my life without him. It had been about six months since the funeral, but that didn’t make things easier. His not being there loomed large for everyone in the family. At one point during dinner, someone broke down in tears and ran away from the table. We were really quiet after that. But we regrouped and got through it. Wine helped a little. But death is never easy, and the mourning process never really ends and that first holiday without them makes the loss really palpable. I have a few thoughts, based on my experiences after losing Dad, about what you can do to get through the holidays when you and your family have heavy hearts and an empty spot at the table.

It’s nice to do something to acknowledge and honor your beloved departed family member. You can leave a chair open or do a toast to them or place a photograph of them on the table. That person is already in everyone’s hearts and minds, so be open about the fact that you’re missing them. Let them be part of the celebration. When you bring them into the room, you confirm that they’re still part of the family even though they’re not there in their physical form.

At dinner, make space to talk about the person. Tell a story about them or say, yeah, Dad would’ve loved that or Mom would’ve wanted us to… It’s another way of bringing them into the room. Be honest about missing them. Everyone’s feelings are raw and sharing the fact that you all miss the person can help all of you heal a little. You never really fully heal from the death of someone close. You just get used to the pain and the absence. Let your feelings about the person out because they’ll be in you and your family forever.

If someone at the table needs to cry, that’s OK. Everyone’s sad. Let it out. If you need to cry, don’t run away. Others seeing you cry may help them deal with their sadness. There’s nothing wrong with crying. Cry together. Give yourself a moment to sit in your sadness. If you try to ignore your sadness, you’ll only deepen it. Don’t be so stoic. By acknowledging your sadness, you can begin to make peace with it. 

Also, if possible, think about adding some new people to the table. Your family has a certain dynamic, a certain way of interacting. Everyone plays a certain role in the flow of conversations and interactions. When a central member of your family is missing, you’ll notice that the dynamic is missing something. If you add new people to your holiday table then that will help change the dynamic. 

The first holiday celebration without someone is yet another step in the long, hard process of getting used to going on without that person. Fixate on the fond times with them and the idea that they would want you to go on and that they’re watching over you. Remember that they’re at peace, free from this life. But, there’s no doubt that it’s hard. In a way, you never really stop crying. It’s been years, and I’m still sad that Dad isn’t around anymore. I still miss him. That’s an expression of my love for him, and it reminds me that my love for him didn’t end with his death.


Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Look out for his upcoming podcast “Being Black In the 80s.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!