How Losing My Dad Fundamentally Changed How I Celebrate Thanksgiving

Photo: Getty Images / Jordan Vanderzalm / EyeEm
My dad would only eat cranberry sauce if it was in the shape of a can.

Every year on Thanksgiving, my mom worked for hours over the meal—which always included homemade cranberry sauce, with actual whole cranberries in it—but the last thing she did before we sat down to eat was plop a can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce onto one of her china plates. She hated it, but he insisted.

Our Thanksgiving dinner doesn't involve can-shaped cranberry sauce anymore. My dad died in 2016, taking the tradition with him, along with our annual ritual of watching the entire Macy's Day Parade as a family and starting the meal with the words, "rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub." In the years since his death, I've become a Thanksgiving Grinch.

What used to hold the award for my favorite holiday has become one that I dread. I spend weeks thinking about the empty seat at the table (a new table, since the one we sat at every Thanksgiving for 20 years got sold along with the house I grew up in after my dad died), and the gaping hole in our family that it represents. I wish I could just sleep through the fourth Thursday of every November every year for the rest of my life, because it seems impossible to feel joyful and thankful on a day when his loss feels especially profound.

According to Alison Stone, LCSW, grief on Thanksgiving is a common emotion for people who have experienced a loss or have complicated family situations. "I think a lot of it has to do with expectations around the holidays—the things that we tell ourselves about the way things 'should' be or look or feel," she says. These expectations are what get us to put pressure on ourselves to be happy and joyous and grateful, and when the reality doesn't live up to what we hope for, it can make the holidays even more challenging.

In my case, this all checks out. I keep wanting Thanksgiving to be exactly like it was when I was growing up, and our family of six people, five dogs, and three cats curled up by the fire and ate muffins and watched the Charlie Brown float make its way down Fifth Avenue. But the heartbreaking truth is that it's never going to be that way again. So best thing that I, or any other Thanksgiving haters out there can do, Stone says, is to create new expectations for the holiday.

I had expected Friendsgiving to feel like a kind of cheap knock-off of the actual holiday, but this year's celebration gave me the same gratitude that the real thing did when I was growing up.

For some people, that means spending it with their "chosen" family instead of their biological one. "The great thing about friends is we get to choose them," says Stone, who's a big fan of the "Friendsgiving" phenomenon. "Usually there's a lot less heaviness and conflict, and they tend to be nice, simple occasions that provide companionship, intimacy, socialization, bonding—all of the things that we assume are supposed to come from a family, but is not always the case. And if you can get that from your friends, that's wonderful."

With that in mind, this year, I hosted my first-ever Friendsgiving. My roommate and I spent an entire Sunday cooking the full holiday meal (complete with a 25-pound turkey) in our tiny apartment kitchen, and shared it with the friends that have been a part of our chosen family for more than a decade. We wore sweatpants, drank wine, and laughed so hard that I had full tears streaming down my face into my stuffing. We ended the night squeezing nine people on a couch meant to fit three, too happy, full and tipsy to care. I had expected Friendsgiving to feel like a kind of cheap knock-off of the actual holiday, but this year's celebration gave me the same gratitude that the real thing did when I was growing up.

This year on Thanksgiving day, I'll be with my mom and some family friends, another sector of our chosen family. The holiday will never be the same as it used to be—the hole in my family is a permanent one. But I will remember the feeling of looking around at the people I love, huddled around a too-small table with a can-shaped slab of cranberry sauce smack in the middle of it, and know that there still is a lot to be thankful for.

Speaking of being thankful, check out this skeptic's guide to gratitude. And here's why one of our editors says being laid off right before the holidays was one of the best things to happen to her career.

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