A Better Way to Be With Family on Thanksgiving

Be a thoughtful observer.

I’ve written about Thanksgiving before. It’s my favorite holiday. And yet…

Haven’t we said everything that we can say about giving thanks? Many of us have kept gratitude journals for a while, maybe some for a long time, each day reminding ourselves to be consciously aware of the gifts we receive with no request for return on investment — air, water, and the ground upon which we stand. Food, clothing, and shelter, each made possible by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people we will never meet. When I pause to think about the specifics of how those five elements sustain me, and what I would do without them, I am struck dumb.

But this year, that’s most of what I have to say about gratitude. This year I want to speak to anyone who is feeling alone or forgotten, even the smallest bit. To anyone who is planning to go home to a family, or not, and they feel stressed. The other night I saw part of the current Joker movie. I couldn’t handle staying through the entirety. I don’t need reminders that there is sadness in the world and that we need to be kinder to each other. And to ourselves.

Let’s talk about what it feels like not to have a big, jovial family over the holidays. I’ve lived through a divorce, which means at one point, I felt like I lost half of my family. The following Holiday Season, I felt unwelcome at parties that require a partner so that no one feels uncomfortable. I felt stressed, alone, and lost. That was a rough year.

I don’t think any of us will go through an entire lifetime escaping those feelings. Each time we are set adrift, whether we lose a job, or a partner, or a child moves away, the aloneness feels like a heavy blanket from which escape is impossible. But it turns out it’s not impossible. Each time, either I’ve been able to throw it off, or someone has come along to lift it off of me. For many of us, pretty much all it takes is an outstretched hand. That’s what we crave — the hand of someone who can look us in the eyes and touch us, to remind us that we’re not alone.

Each year I’m struck by the generosity that erupts over the end of year holidays, from Thanksgiving through the New Year. We seem like a different species. We wake up from whatever stupor we’ve been in the rest of the year. We volunteer, throw coins and dollar bills into the Salvation Army buckets, and offer homeless folks a dollar or two.

If your family gets together, how is it when you go home? Are you looking forward to it? Are you nervous, worried, excited? Do you have a Norman Rockwell get-together, or are there a few glitches with folks who make it difficult to be together? Whichever scenario greets you, I encourage you to do something different. Instead of jumping into the melee of old dynamics, old behaviors, and past outcomes, consider stepping back one degree. Step back just far enough to be able to observe the family dynamics so that you can thoughtfully and purposefully choose how you will behave.

According to Psychiatrist Murray Bowen who developed family systems theory:

We have more power than we give ourselves credit for. Just one small act of kindness in holding out a hand, or stepping back and observing, rather than jumping into old behaviors, can make a positive difference, not only in what happens, but in how we feel.

This Thanksgiving and through the end of 2020, I want to remember exactly how I’m feeling at this moment. Grateful, a bit melancholy for the losses I’ve experienced, hopeful that I will remember to carry out my intentions to extend my hand throughout the next year, and excited about the opportunity to love for another year.

Therapist, mindfulness coach, writer. I got tired of hearing myself talk, so I write. robyn1001@comcast.net or www.partnersinmindfulliving.com/blog

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