In my family, Thanksgiving was always the "It" holiday. Our home would be filled with the smells of roasting turkey, plenty of laughter, and the occasional appearance of Sheldon the Hanukkah Fairy, my Jewish mother's version of Santa Claus. Then, in September 2012, my dad died. As Thanksgiving drew closer, it became a time not of celebration but of dread. My mom didn't feel emotionally ready to host; my sister said it would be too painful for her to attend. With my marriage floundering at that point, I panicked at the idea of spending the holiday with my family alone.
I convinced my mother to come to my home in Connecticut; she showed up with an entire catered dinner. My father, a former heart surgeon, had always carved the turkey with exquisite precision, but this year the job was done by my soon-to-be ex, who halfheartedly hacked away at it. Standing in the kitchen watching him battle the bird, listening to my children melting down in the other room, I had never felt so alone. I'd insisted on clinging to old traditions in a family that was just too fragmented.
Now, my sister and I take turns hosting, in part so our kids can be on their own turf and not deal with disruptions in schedules, at least every other year. Although my father isn't there, we honor his presence by showing our children pictures of him at various ages and regaling them with stories of what we did with their grandfather when we were young. It's far from the Thanksgiving of my childhood, but it's special in a different way.
So I know that even if you're facing the death of a loved one or the demise of a marriage (or both), you really can get through the situation gracefully. Consider trying some of these approaches.
If a family member has died, set an extra place at the table for him, or light a candle in his memory that burns throughout the meal, says Denise Daniels, founder and former executive director of the National Childhood Grief Institute, in Minneapolis: "Don't be afraid to use the word died with your children. Bringing it out in the open can help all of you heal." This advice has held true for Amy DiTeodoro, whose son, Gianni, died five years ago at the age of 4. "The last Christmas he was alive, we attempted to go to Mass but there were no more parking spaces at the church and we didn't want Gianni to have to walk too far on icy roads since he had a brace," recalls DiTeodoro, of Stamford, Connecticut. "So instead we went home and made a 'Baby Jesus' birthday cake. It was the ugliest cake we'd ever seen, but we thought it was hysterical." For the first Christmas Eve after Gianni's death, DiTeodoro decided to keep the tradition going: "It started as a way to make my other children laugh during what was an incredibly sorrowful time," she explains. "But now, we eat cake and remember him joyfully."
Maybe your former mother-in-law made a comment to you in front of your children that was completely inappropriate. Or your ex lashed out at you while dropping off the kids. "Say, 'This is not the time to talk about this. We'll discuss it later,'" recommends New York City psychotherapist Sheenah Hankin, Ph.D. "You're protecting your children from seeing the tension, but you're also showing them how to manage their emotions."
Christina Pesoli will never forget the first Thanksgiving she spent without her daughter. "I'd just gotten divorced, and my ex-husband and I were alternating holidays," says Pesoli, an Austin, Texas, family-law attorney and author of Break Free From the Divortex. "When I saw my ex pull into my driveway, it really hit home." Pesoli had plenty of friends and family to spend time with, but that's not a reality for lots of us. "I tell clients to give themselves permission that day to do something totally different," she says. "Initially, it's difficult being without your children, but eventually you realize that it gives you a chance to recharge your batteries so you can be in top form when they return."