While Thanksgiving will be a time to gather again this year for many people, thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, it may for other people be the start of a difficult holiday season.
Some people may be home alone on Thanksgiving by choice, following safety guidelines, while other families will be missing loved ones at the Thanksgiving table who are hospitalized with COVID-19 or who have passed away from the virus over the past nearly two years.
Still others may be coping with a non-COVID related illness that is keeping their family separated or coping with a deployment or a divorce, separation or estrangement that unfolded during the pandemic.
"What many people are going to experience this year, for a variety of reasons, is that their holiday table is not going to be as full as it normally is," said Kory Floyd, Ph.D., an author and professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Arizona. "Many American households are going to experience a sense of deprivation this year."
"Especially on a holiday, when it’s a time to celebrate and be around loved ones, that accentuates a sense of loneliness," he said.
Here are five tips to make Thanksgiving a joy-filled day regardless of who you are, or are not, spending it with.
1. Make a plan:
Planning ahead the fun things you'll do on Thanksgiving, or the new traditions you'll start, can both help ease the stress and uncertainty of the day and help you from obsessing over what could have been, according to Floyd.
"Think now of things you’ll plan for that day that will be positive distractions," he said. "The benefit of [planning ahead] is we’re ready and we’re prepared, and we’re prepared to enjoy and find meaning and find joyfulness in whatever we do with that time."
Planning ahead can be as detailed as what time you'll eat meals and do activities to a more general list of the movies you want to watch or the activities you can do outside in fresh air, experts say.
Floyd recommends planning something that feels indulgent on what is still a special day of the year.
"What feels indulgent to people will vary from person to person," he said, giving examples of a bubble bath or a decadent dessert. "But make it something that goes beyond the ordinary and feels really special and allow yourself the freedom to enjoy it, to lean into it."
2. Find ways to help other people:
Doing something good for someone else can take the focus off yourself and help ease feelings of loneliness or discontent, according to Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a holistic child psychologist and the founder and director of Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, Michigan.
That could mean dropping items off at a nursing home, preparing boxed meals for neighbors or delivering books and needed items to women's and children's centers, recommends Beurkens.
"Sometimes the best way to soothe ourselves is to do something outside of ourselves," she said.
3. Phone a friend or loved one:
Even if you can't physically be with your loved ones on Thanksgiving, it's important to find ways to stay in touch with people, recommend both Floyd and Beurkens.
Plan ahead to make sure you can call, Skype or Zoom with friends and relatives on Thanksgiving, whether it's just talking to catch up or taking part in holiday traditions together via technology. If the technology is too much, spend the down time you may have that day writing letters to family and friends or simply thinking about who in your life you're grateful for, according to the experts.
4. Think ahead to next year:
While it's normally important to stay in the moment and not look ahead or behind, experts say this year it can be healthy to look ahead to a more hopeful time.
"It gives a sense of forward-looking motion that helps people not feel as heavy a sense of what is going on now," said Floyd. "It reminds people that this is temporary and things will get better."
Floyd said he is reminding his patients that no matter how bad this year feels, it is temporary, and it is okay to start thinking ahead to things like travel and gathering again in-person with family and friends.
His advice is to be specific when thinking about the future, picturing things like exactly where you want to travel to, who you will spend Thanksgiving with next year and what new traditions you may want to start.
5. Be okay with shedding some tears:
Both Floyd and Beurkens say it's okay and perfectly normal to spend a few moments on Thanksgiving shedding tears or sitting for a bit with grief over what a strange holiday, and year, this has been.
"It's not getting over the emotions, but getting through them," said Floyd. "The last thing people should do is be ashamed of those emotions."
"We can still generate joy even though there’s a sense of sadness or a sense of loss," he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on November 25, 2020.