11/26/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Thanksgiving When You Don't Feel Thankful: 6 Helpful Tips

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Thanksgiving is a time when we join with friends and family to express gratitude for all that we have. Indeed for our bounty. But what if you are missing a beloved family member at your table? What if your daughter suddenly died in her sleep the day before graduating from medical school, or your 17-year-old son had jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge, or your 6-year-old daughter had been stomped to death by a horse? How then do you find gratitude for the life you have been given?

These are just a few of the stories I heard tonight at our monthly Compassionate Friends meeting. Sitting with these courageous parents I realized just how fragile this world is. These parents were like me, assuming that the holidays would always be spent with all of our children gathered around the table -- until our worlds shattered.

In the early days of my grief experience, soon after the death of my son, I did not feel gratitude for the changes in life. But reflecting on that time now, I am grateful for all of the warmth and generosity that close friends surrounded me with, for the meals delivered to our home, for friends who gave rides to our surviving children after school, and for the myriad small kindnesses I did not even notice as I tried to just keep breathing.

Part of the definition of "gratitude" is reciprocating kindnesses. If you are further in your journey, it might be time to start repaying the goodness that was offered in your time of need. Try to be more of a listening ear with friends, drop off a plant or flowers "just because." These efforts can be small, but are meaningful both for the recipient and to remind yourself that just as you are the recipient of others' generosity you are also a source of joy for others.

During the Compassionate Friends meeting we came up with the following six things that might be helpful in getting you through the holidays.

  • Be of service: If this is your first holiday without your loved one, it may be the year to be of service to yourself. Let others cook the dinner. If you are a little further down the road of your grief journey, you might consider spending part of the day volunteering to serve meals at a homeless shelter.
  • Get Physical: Go for a walk or take a bike ride.
  • Embrace Harmony: Listen to uplifting music.
  • Laugh: Watch a funny movie or a YouTube. Check out some funny animal pictures.
  • Hug: Ask friends or family for hugs. Even shaking hands can give you much needed human contact.
  • You Matter: Never forget the impact you have on the world. You are important and as a survivor of loss have a great deal to offer the world.

Thanksgiving is a poignant and bittersweet time for those of us who have experienced a profound loss. Messages permeate the air urging gratitude, and yet when someone precious has died, it is normal to question: "What do I have to be thankful for?" This Thanksgiving focus on self-care, doing what brings you comfort and warmth.