“Do you even like turkey?” I asked my husband last night over our dinner of pad thai as we mused out loud about what we’d make for Thanksgiving. The truth is, I don’t. I’m not really a fan of most parts of the traditional Thanksgiving spread. But until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that this year, we could skip it all: the bird, the stuffing, the sweet potato casserole.
And almost as soon as the thought popped into my brain, I felt guilty. This Thanksgiving will look different than most, sure, but it’s still Thanksgiving.
You, like me, may have already settled with the idea that gathering with friends and family is off the table. And if that’s the case, then you, like me, may assume that the way to ease the pain of this Thanksgiving is to recreate the usual holiday routines as faithfully as possible. But trying to force some sense of normalcy on a very strange day may end up just making things worse.
“It’s like trying to fit a square into a circle,” says Austin-based therapist Grace Dowd. “You can’t fit that exact same warm, fuzzy experience into a pandemic-restricted life, and forcing it will only make you feel worse because then you have the original grief plus the added grief that your new way didn’t work either.”
Instead, Dowd says, it might be better to just admit that, well, Thanksgiving kind of sucks this year — and figure out a realistic way to spend your day instead. Here’s how to make your peace with the reality of the holiday ahead, as far from ideal as it might be.
We compound our own suffering when we tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel a certain way, Dowd explains, which means the first step to dealing with any painful experience is to accept whatever emotions you’re experiencing.
“It’s important to acknowledge that, okay, this year is going to look different from years past, and chances are there are a lot of big and small things we won’t be able to do,” she says. “Owning up to those difficult realities will allow you to process the sucky emotions more easily without pushing them aside or overidentifying with them.” (Read: wallowing.) If you’re sad, let yourself be sad. If you’re kind of relieved you don’t have to travel, be relieved without guilt.
Once you admit that this year won’t be the same, you can toss out the idea of trying to replicate your past Thanksgivings. “After you admit to yourself how hard it is, you can make space for other creative ways to have fun without the pressure of ‘This has to be awesome,’” Dowd says.
Instead, devote your energy to finding new ways to mark the day that fit into your current pandemic-restricted life. Nick Bognar, a therapist in California, says this is a good time to tune in to what you actually do and don’t like and plan accordingly. Maybe you, like me, don’t actually like turkey. Great! Order noodles from your favorite Thai spot or grab a rotisserie chicken. Don’t feel like going on your family’s traditional fall hike without the whole crew? Snuggle up on the couch and turn on a favorite movie.
The key is to be open to new ways of doing things. “The holiday can still be special for you, but make it special in a way you actually like, not in an obligatory way that sucks,” Bognar says. “Find something you love, and keep it really small and minimal, and maybe you can make a new tradition of things you’re actually grateful for.”
Chances are that in addition to the specific people you’re missing, you’re also aching for a certain feeling, like excitement or nostalgia. Dowd suggests making your plans around those emotions rather than the experiences that typically trigger them.
For example, it would probably be tough to re-create your grandma’s entire Thanksgiving menu. But if one item feels especially nostalgic, whip it up or order it in. “You can mimic those same feelings on a smaller, more realistic scale so you don’t exhaust yourself or end up more disappointed,” she says.
Grief comes in waves, and there might be moments where it’s more palpable, like when you sit down to eat or turn on the Thanksgiving Day parade you used to watch with your parents. Don’t ignore those moments, as much as they sting. Instead, try labeling them. When you name an emotional experience, you tap into the part of your brain that’s more logical — which, Dowd explains, can lessen the intensity of the emotion and help you decide what to do next.
For example, let’s say your eyes well up with tears when you bring out the pumpkin pie. Take a deep breath and say out loud, to yourself or someone else, that you feel sad because you miss your family. Then, make a plan, like FaceTiming your parents or texting your siblings photos of your Postmates spread. It probably won’t feel the same to share what you’re grateful for from behind a screen, but at least you didn’t spend all afternoon making a dinner you didn’t even want to eat. You’ll be fully engaged with what’s actually happening rather than chasing an idea or a wish, and you’ll be better off for it.