One of the unique things about Thanksgiving as a holiday is that on that day most people across the country, from all ethnic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds do the same thing — they gather with others to give thanks and eat some version of turkey and the required ritual side dishes. What can be quite different, however, are the feelings of the people gathered.
Holidays are mile markers. The same predictable food and rituals that provide family cohesion and social stability become the counterpoint of how life has unfolded in planned and unplanned ways over the course of the year or years. Yes, there is always something we can give thanks for but when there has been hardship, traumatic loss, frightening diagnosis, unexpected separations – Thanksgiving can be difficult. Is there a way to face it? Maybe.
You Are Not Alone
Sometimes people who have suffered trauma feel like that are looking through a glass at a world that is preparing to enjoy a holiday they can neither feel nor be a part of. They feel a dreadful sense of estrangement from normal life. It is not uncommon. Regardless of what you see in the media or read on the greeting cards, lots of folks are carrying emotional pain on Thanksgiving. You are not alone – you are human.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon
If the trauma has just occurred, one or both of you may be reeling from the event, disorganized, grieving, distracted – the last thing you have the time or energy for is the holiday. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe life is not defined by one day.
Sometimes a traumatic event has taken place near or around Thanksgiving. As a result, that day and the holiday season may become triggers for painful memories, feelings and physical stress. Such feelings may recur for many years although not with the same intensity or impact. It is very helpful for partners to validate such feelings in each other even if they may not be crying the same tears or having the same memory. Bearing witness to a partner’s feeling rarely makes it worse – it usually makes the partner feel understood and supported. Anticipating that one or both of you is going to feel sad, bereft, or vulnerable is understandable but sometimes not accurate. With time, people often find that their anticipation of the holiday is far worse than the holiday itself.
Permission To Have Different Feelings
Essential to the nature of trauma is the mix of knowing and not knowing, of intrusion and numbing, of being unable to remember and unable to forget, of facing the trauma and of avoiding it. Picture that as you are making the journey of recovery, on one side of the road is the pain, memory and impact of the trauma and on the other side is everyday life, play, work, joy, laughter, holidays. It is the courage to go back and forth from each side that actually moves you forward on the road to recovery. If you only look at the trauma you won’t find the strength to move forward and if you completely avoid the trauma you will never find a place for it and also stay stuck.
At Thanksgiving, it is likely you will have a mix of such feelings – there may be tears as you bake the pumpkin pie; a wish to be with family and a fear of how you will feel without a loved one there. There may be the longing to have your life the way it used to be and the dread of facing a holiday with things so different. It is OK – take one step at a time – you are allowed to change your mind and your step.
Permission To Be Different
Sometimes the differences in facing and avoiding trauma get played out by the partners. One feels that being with family for Thanksgiving is the way to feel support and move on. The other can’t imagine sitting in a room with people without feeling overwhelmed. This is where the wish to understand each other- can move both a little. Maybe they agree to go just for dessert. Maybe they arrange for him to take the children and for her to meet them later. The important thing is trying to support each other while inviting the other to look at the other side of the road – she glimpses his need to be with family. He registers her discomfort with being around people after losing their son.
Do It for the Children
If you have heard people say – “ If you can’t do it for yourself- do it for the children,” they are right. Children are the reason for hope and the motivation to keep going after trauma. Children need you and they need to know that life goes on. When a family has faced a traumatic event or loss, the children know it. Often they are not sure what it may mean. If it involves the loss of a family member- they often suffer not only that loss but the wellbeing of those around them who are suffering. They need to stay involved with life. It does not mean that they won’t understand the meaning of loss – it means they will not be overloaded. This is the reason to work together as a couple to give the children some feeling of holiday.
Who Said It Has To Be Conventional?
Give yourselves permission to find another day or another way to have Thanksgiving if ou need. The novel and the unexpected picnic on the beach, the trip to another part of the country, the pizza movie party can change the set and reduce the reality of life having suddenly or painfully changed. Most children are happy to be doing anything together.
As a couple you may also find that just sharing something together brings a little relief into a rough time. Remember that after trauma one of the important reasons for doing things differently, letting others help, serving different food is that trauma and grieving are in themselves exhausting. If cooking is a hobby that puts you in a relaxation zone – great. If not, you may need time to be doing something completely different.
Expand the Frame
Many people find that reaching our to others helps them feel most thankful for on Thanksgiving. Feeling unable to do a conventional holiday, people have shared joy by serving meals at shelters, taking pets to nursing homes; entertaining at senior citizen centers, packing boxes for troops, cooking for a family that has suffered in a similar way.
When a couple plans to do some giving together it can be a mutual experience that draws them closer and gives life more meaning. Given that trauma often leaves us feeling helpless, being helpful to others in need reinstates a reason to hope.
As you face Thanksgiving together –
Remember that recovery is not an event, it is a process.
Remember that Thanksgiving is another day in that process.
Remember that Thanksgiving can happen any day that you remember you have each other.
For Further Reading:
Stolorow, R. (1999) The phenomenology of Trauma and the Absolutisms of Everyday Life: A Personal Journey. Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol.16, pp.464-468.
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Happy Thanksgiving All Year -Suzanne