A group of people holding hands at a table with food.

GriefSpeak: Thanksgivings at a time of loss and remembrance

By: Mari Nardolillo Dias

Thanksgiving 2021

Some of you reading this may feel joyful, (finally, a holiday with family and friends!); some still cautious and fearful, (Covid, safe distancing, and boosters), others may be hungry ( the homeless, single parents and unemployed), and still others are raw with a recent loss and overwhelmed with the thought of a holiday without their loved one. Those who are raw with grief may choose to celebrate in their traditional way, and include an empty chair at the table to represent their loved one. Others may choose to disregard the holiday all together, closing the drapes, shutting off the phone and staying still. A third group may be fraught with confusion as to how to approach Thanksgiving – they would prefer to ignore it and breathe until Friday comes, but they have children and want to offer a sense of normalcy. Rather than deliberating over this conundrum, involve your children in the decision. Ask them how they would like to spend the day. They may surprise you. Many children suggest a trip to the gravesite, replete with a picnic lunch and beach chairs. It needs to be to be a family decision, as with all the holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries going forward.

You may also choose to focus on a precious Thanksgiving memory. I have several memories of Thanksgivings past; many spent feeding the homeless in a soup kitchen and/or volunteering in the Trauma Center at Rhode Island Hospital: however, one of my favorites was with an end of life client.

Carolann was in her early 50’s and given a few months to live. She was worried she would pass during the holiday season. She was fearful that her children and grandchildren’s future holidays would be mired by the memory of her death. Despite her waning appetite and decline in physical energy, she hungered for what would be her last Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, anyone who knows me is aware that cooking is not my forte. With that in mind, I ordered dinner for four from a local restaurant. When I arrived to deliver the cartons of food, I climbed the three sets of stairs to the third floor apartment that Carolann shared with her daughter and her two grandchildren. I found Carolann sitting alone at the kitchen table playing solitaire. She was surprised and joyful – her eyes lit up when she saw the feast. Of course, she could only manage a spoonful of each of the dishes: a forkful of stuffing with a piece of turkey, cranberry (her favorite), which she slurped down with a straw, just 3 green beans and her final effort- a piece of pumpkin pie that she labored over with tenacity, slowly and methodically savoring each bite. I fed her the last few mouthfuls.

She passed on December 11 of that year. Knowing I spent her last Thanksgiving with her is heartening.

Of course, closer to home is my/our first Thanksgiving without my brother, Bobby. Mom always had dinner at Bobby’s on this holiday, so we usually showed up later in the day for baked ham or turkey sandwiches. In more recent years we texted and sent pictures to each other. He always beat me, sending me well wishes at 5am. There has been a chair for my dad and my grandparents for years, as well as Carolann. This Thanksgiving there will be a new chair for my brother, Bobby. One of his mantras was: “Cry for me today, but laugh the rest of your life.”

Bobby, I’m laughing. As I write this you just sent me a memory of you chasing me around the Thanksgiving table with escarole stuck in your nostril and the arguments over the wishbone.

Thank you!

Editors Note: How will we remember those close to us who have been lost at our Thanksgiving? May we all pause to remember those who have been lost with the pandemic in Rhode Island and throughout the world, as we are thankful for the beginning of our path out.


Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. Dias is a Certified death doula, and has a Certificate in Psychological Autopsy.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to: