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Grieving and Giving Thanks: How to Enjoy Thanksgiving Without a Loved One

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If I recall Thanksgiving in 2003, I see the shining face of my husband, Virgil, from across the table. Healthy, vibrant, and brave, he cracks jokes on his younger cousin over his over-demanding wife. Next to him sits his brother Sandu, chuckling and undecided whether to join in this debauchery. A few seconds later his choice is made and Virgil and Sandu roar with laughter. The two were inseparable and their bond nothing short of admirable. They could not only finish each other's sentences, but maintained a solid foundation of respect and loyalty. Their common denominator was a boundless love for their family.

In charge of all preparations, Virgil and Sandu acted as the delegates of Thanksgiving, a flagship celebration of family. Fast forward 10 years to the present, and with both Virgil and Sandu missing, I can only imagine what this year's table will look like. A more somber crowd, there will be no hilarity, no feuding over the last swig of wine, and no brothers-in-arms up to their usual antics. The silence will be felt.

The empty chairs will be most evident perhaps to my cousin Claudia, widow to the late Sandu, who left our family just last spring. Having already endured a number of ceremonial meals without Virgil, I became accustomed to attending festivities without my better half. For the last four years, I intruded on different friends, drove to distant family members, and held my three daughters as close to me as possible. But despite my efforts to be in physical contact with others, I realized one thing: I didn't really belong anywhere. My two older daughters had families, and although I watched lovingly as they kissed their husbands and scolded their children, I knew I didn't fit into their immediate familial circle. Even my younger daughter, 27, had a life of her own: a boyfriend and friends and parties to run off to later. I thought, Where will I go when this dinner is over? An unwelcomed answer followed.

My struggle is not mine alone. It is the shared challenge of millions around the world who fight to fill a heartfelt void after having lost their spouse, child, parent, sibling, friend, or worse, a combination of. A dreaded battle, at best. But we as humans come equipped with the greatest, rarest grace imaginable: resilience. This unfailing sense of fortitude and endurance, of getting up and forging ahead, allows us to conquer almost anything. Profound resilience never fails to see us through. And knowing this is the first step towards true healing after loss. Implement my tips below to manage through Thanksgiving without your loved one and feel their consoling company on any day:

Talk to them. Before stepping out for Thanksgiving dinner, speak out loud to your beloved. Conjure their memory in your mind and tell them exactly how you feel. You can confess that you miss them, explain your hardships, even ask for their help. Start by saying, "Well, today's Thanksgiving and I wanted to tell you that..." The words will flow from there. When you release your emotions and speak your mind without restraint, you feel an instant sense of relief. You will also feel inexplicably connected to your loved one, as if they are there and listening. This will endow you with the hope and strength to go out and enjoy your holiday like you deserve.

Celebrate their memory. Reserve a chair at the dinner table for your precious person, as if they were sitting right there with you. Raise a glass for your dear departed one and toast to their name. Prepare their favorite dish for others to enjoy. Rituals like these serve as a reassuring reminder of the spiritual presence of a late loved one.

Find a strong support system. Spend Thanksgiving with whomever offers you the most moral support. This is the time to take things very easy and do what makes you feel comfortable. Stick closely with those who can boost your strength and vitality, whether they be family or friends. Don't be afraid to call on people who can show you unconditional love and patience in a time when you need compassionate above all else.

Don't force yourself. The grieving process is unique for each of us and everyone heals at a different rate. Don't force yourself to feel happy if you don't, but do try to stabilize your emotions and use them to a positive advantage. It's perfectly fine to release your pain and cry as long as this provides genuine relief. Excuse yourself from the table and take a quick walk or meditate in another room for a few minutes. Emotions may be difficult to control, but you should both allow your feelings to run their course while also putting in effort to better your mood little by little.

Find a sense of peace. True wisdom means seeking peace in all situations, especially in those which you cannot change. Attain tranquility by adopting the right mindset, whether it's reminding yourself that at least your loved one is no longer in pain or that their spiritual presence will forever be felt. Dwell on thoughts that create comfort and serenity and banish those that evoke guilt or regret. Remember that the past is unchangeable and that contemplating "what if" will do you no favors. Understand that there is a greater reason for your dear one's departure, one which you will fully comprehend in time.

A holiday like Thanksgiving can be burdensome with the one we love absent from the table. But we must not forget that we possess resilience, an inherent gift that helps us surmount any obstacle. Add my advice to your holiday routine to discover a deep-seated sense of acceptance and feel the undying presence of your loved one.

To Virgil and Sandu,

Dr. Carmen Harra

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