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When Your Thanksgiving Doesn't Look Like the Hallmark Version

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It’s strange how the holidays come at the same time every year, and yet they still sneak up on me. The Christmas songs on repeat in Target, my neighbor’s overly-lit yard that could confuse a small aircraft, the frantic rush at the grocery store on a Wednesday… I knew something was up, but I wasn’t ready to talk turkey.

a place setting at a table with a card that says mom

No offense to the turkey. I just don’t get that excited about large feasts of any kind of bird, truth be told. I don’t like green beans, and I’m not a fan of fried onions. And when they touch? Ew. I’m not into setting tables, and I’m certainly not into “unsetting” them. I don’t see the point in brewing coffee a couple hours before bed just because we’re having dessert. It all seems, well, a bit much.

But before you gear up to get all Starbucks-red-cup on me and blast me for not embracing one of America’s major holidays, let me pose a question. Can you celebrate the holidays in the traditional, quintessential manner, like they do on the Hallmark channel, when you’re missing one key ingredient — a tribe?

Some people — like those deployed or working abroad — are apart from their families. And that’s hard. But I’m talking about the people who’ve outlived their families or have been forgotten by them. I’m talking about the people who are too depressed and/or anxious to be social. I’m talking about people like me who, due to lack of procreation, family divides and emotional and physical distance, will face another holiday season with less than a party of four. For us, Thanksgiving can feel like any other Thursday night, not the day that many other people spend weeks prepping and planning for.

I’ve struggled since my teenage years with depression, anxiety, eating issues and self-acceptance. As I’ve gotten older and become a parent and a therapist, I’ve learned to manage and overcome many of my challenges, although it’s always a work in progress. We always are. Holidays have been tough for me for a long time. My parents split when I was 16, and our tribe was already small. Ten years ago, my dad died a few days before Christmas. That can certainly put a damper on the holiday cheer. But more recently, my husband and I have been struggling, and for the past three years, sh*t seems to hit the fan every November. This year’s been no exception. But when my mother busted out with “Why bother doing it? What do we even have to be thankful for?” in a moment of despair and disappointment, I un-bunched my panties and really thought about it.

Instead of counting my blessings, I thought about what I wish I was thankful for. And I let myself grieve for the lost dreams I had of a large family with big love surrounding me and my son, for the loud laughs carrying through adorned hallways, the gobs of people huddling around a table sharing stories, the stragglers who linger until the last drop of wine pours them out into the night. That is not my holiday. That is not my reality. But my goal is to pour gravy over that grief and point my arrows in a new direction — gratitude.

My tribe is small. My tribe has some cracks. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to be thankful for. For starters, my happy, healthy, beautiful little toddler. He deserves a different experience. So I will strive to teach him that love can come in tiny whispers and simple ways, every day. That special doesn’t always come in fanfare and feasting, but in shared moments and handholds and in quiet spaces and peaceful places. As this world challenges us to find purpose and meaning, we will remind each other that numbers are nice, but they’re not necessary. We will get back to roots and the true tradition of this holiday — to be thankful for one another, for what we have, and maybe even for what we don’t have. Because when all is said and done, maybe we’ll be thankful to not have to deal with the heated political arguments, dry turkey, and a congested drive over rivers and through woods to grandmother’s house with that god-awful green bean casserole.

For those with small tribes, my best advice is to remember the power of gratitude and charity. Do for others if you’re alone or just feel alone. Seek out connection where you can, and focus on what you do have. Even if it’s something that seems little, it’s often not: health, a best friend (human or furry), a warm bed, or the freedom that many others in some parts of the world may not have. Perspective is always a choice.

Lead image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: November 24, 2016
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