Colorful, hand-shaped paper cut outs, or thankful hands, cover a Thanksgiving table. Gratitude helps families cope with pain and loss.

Giving Thanks

Our family has a longtime tradition of making “thankful hands” to decorate our Thanksgiving table. We trace our hands on colored paper, cut them out, and write something we are thankful for on each one (for those going “umm, why colored paper hands?!?”, the activity harkens back to the preschool years when these cut-out handprints became turkeys during the holiday week). Then we scatter the thankful hands across the table and during the meal take turns reading the ones closest to us out loud.  Thanksgiving is by far our favorite family holiday with its focus on family, food, and gratitude.

But even favorite holidays often come with emotional baggage.

For many of us, 2021 may be a return to Thanksgiving traditions after the COVID year of 2020. For others, 2021 may continue to include disconnect, inability to travel to see loved ones, or broken relationships or traditions. For all of us, holidays often bring a complex combination of celebration and challenge – be it family strain, travel logistics, or the empty seat at the table reminding us of loss.

For my family, 2017 was our most challenging Thanksgiving. We had just lost Matt, my husband of almost 20 years and my 12- and 15-year-old daughters’ dad, to pancreatic cancer. Thanksgiving ended up being just two weeks after his memorial service. Our most beloved holiday came at a time when, to be frank, we were feeling anything but thankful or celebratory. 

I called a family meeting to discuss the situation. What should we do for Thanksgiving? Should we attempt to recreate our family tradition of big cooked meal, or should we maybe travel out of town and do something different knowing it could be a hard day? My girls were adamant – Thanksgiving must go on per tradition. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. They’d already lost their father so couldn’t bear the idea of also losing beloved traditions. To me, this was daunting. I was still in pure shock, and simply remembering to put dinner on the table on a school night was often a struggle. I wasn’t sure the whole day wouldn’t implode in a puddle of tears and grief, but I decided to try.

It turned out to be a beautiful fall day. We made all the food and as the pies went in the oven I got out the colored paper and asked the girls if we wanted to do our thankful hands. They said yes, of course, so I cut a few out. I figured we were mostly going through the motions, that we’d each write a handful and then be done.

But sometimes children really do lead the way. My half-dozen thankful hands were completed in a heartbeat, and the girls demanded more and more and more. We ended up spending over an hour cutting & writing thankful hands. As we read them aloud over dinner I was astonished at their wisdom. They gave thanks for:

  • Their dad no longer suffering
  • Having a dad in heaven watching out for them
  • The years they did get with their dad
  • The many friends & family who had supported us during this time
  • Being healthy
  • Being alive

And for being able to have Thanksgiving with me and each other.

Now, for the record, there were also plenty of tears this holiday. But it highlighted to me something really important about gratitude.

Giving thanks when we are suffering is hard. The heart and mind instinctively want to laser focus on one thing, and when hurt or loss or pain is present it can make it difficult to recognize blessings in our lives. 

And yet they do exist. The truth is that gratitude and thankfulness can co-exist alongside pain. Gratitude doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the hurt, but it can soften its blow by reminding us of what we still have to be thankful for.  

Whether you are joyfully returning to beloved traditions post-COVID, or whether you are experiencing loss, hurt, or pain this holiday season, consider giving one of these Giving Thanks activities a try. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Giving Thanks activities for small gatherings

  1. Share Out Loud - go around the table and have each guest share one thing they are thankful for.
  2. Thankful Card -  host/hostess writes a “thankful card” for each guest telling him/her/them what they are thankful for about that person.
  3. Thankful Hands - our family tradition, works well with small or large gatherings.

Giving Thanks activities for larger gatherings

  1. Thankful Jar – guests are invited to write something on a slip of paper and place it in the jar. Can be shared at dinner or just serve as a reminder of gratitude.
  2. Write a Thankful Card- place a blank card by each seat and invite guests to write a thankful card to someone in their life.
  3. Gratitude Poster – put a white poster board on a wall with sticky notes and colored pens near by. Invite guests to add to the poster and guests can read each others’ posts during the event.
  4. Thankful Hands - our family tradition, works well with small or large gatherings.

I hope you and your family find ways to give thanks this holiday season. 

Interested in learning more? Last year at this time I wrote about the positive effects of gratitude on mental health and ways to cultivate gratitude year-round.

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November 23, 2021
Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University, where she previously chaired the Clinical Psychology PhD program and continues to supervise doctoral trainees.

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