10 Ideas to Honor a Deceased Loved One on Thanksgiving


The first holiday without a loved one may seem like a blur, in particular, if they died close to a major family holiday like Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. Many people who’ve suffered the death of a loved one will tell you that they don’t start to completely miss their loved one during the holidays until after the first one has gone by. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

Of course, any Thanksgiving without a loved one is enough to make you sad and feel the pain of not having them there. But what they mean to say is that during the first holiday, especially when the death is so recent, you may not have time to process that they are no longer there with all that’s going on following their death. 

Ideas for Starting New Traditions to Honor Your Deceased Loved One

List of ideas for starting new traditions to honor your deceased loved one over an image of trees

The death of a loved one can leave a void in your life that’s strongly felt during the holiday season. Family traditions take on new meaning when a cherished member of the family has died. Getting through Thanksgiving when the entire family traditionally comes together to celebrate their many blessings may be challenging for everyone. 

You may need to start new traditions that honor your loved one who’s died so that you give new meaning to the holiday celebrations. The following ideas can give you some inspiration until you find new ways for your family to celebrate.

» MORE: Planning a funeral? Get access to discounts in minutes.

1. Go for a walk in the woods

Fall is the perfect season to get out there to enjoy the changing weather and the beauty that nature has provided. Gather the family for a remembrance walk in honor of your loved one who has died. 

You can elect to walk in silence contemplating your loved one and what they meant to each of you, or you can have a more relaxed walk filled with fun and laughter. The walk doesn’t need to be a sad occasion. The walk can be a time for celebration and a new yearly tradition for you and your family. 

2. Take a funny family photo

Life is precious and can sometimes be so fleeting. Make it a tradition to take a yearly family photo at Thanksgiving in an informal setting that is both fun and funny. Memories like these will bring you joy when you look back at your photos and reminisce. Perhaps this can be the start of an “ugly sweater photo” opportunity or something similar to add cheer to your holiday.

This photo honors your deceased loved one by keeping the family united and bringing hope to them that things will be better moving forward despite your profound loss. Every picture taken memorializes each celebration, and they’ll become tomorrow’s treasures when you look back.

3. Bake some goodies

An excellent way to include your deceased loved one in some of your new family traditions is to have each guest bring a home-baked bread, pie, or cake that was one of your loved one’s favorites. 

You can have a contest to see who baked the most delicious or the prettiest dessert. You can appoint a taste tester or tasting committee by the luck of the draw. It’s okay if everyone shows up with a dried fruitcake so long as it was your loved one’s favorite type of dessert. Over the years, this can evolve into a tradition of everyone bringing a dessert regardless of whose favorite it is. 

4. Share some memories 

After serving dinner and having your bake-off winners selected, move the celebration over to the family room for some storytime. Candles or a hearth fire can add to the warmth of the occasion where you sit and tell stories of your loved one. Ask everyone to share in their favorite memories of the deceased. 

This yearly tradition can continue from one generation to the next. Consider adding some hot cocoa, coffee, or tea to the tradition to warm up your insides even more. 

» MORE: Save $$$ and time with our tools. Start now.

5. Visit the gravesite

Schedule some time during the extended holiday break to visit your loved one’s graveside or location where you spread their ashes. Plan a solo trip or invite others to join you on your new yearly tradition. If there’s a grave, consider bringing some fresh seasonal flowers to adorn the area for the holiday. 

If you’ve spread the ashes, plan an afternoon outing. Consider packing a picnic basket and a blanket so you can sit out in nature and spend some time in this special place where your loved one was set free. 

Ideas for Incorporating Your Deceased Loved One in Established Family Traditions

List of ideas for incorporating your deceased loved one in established family traditions over an image of trees

You don’t need to abandon family traditions altogether when a loved one dies. You can take the established customs and reinvent them when remembering loved ones after they died. Keeping a routine is sometimes better, especially when there are young children involved. Too many changes all at once may cause them to feel insecure and anxious during the holidays. 

Involve the entire family in deciding how you will celebrate Thanksgiving now that your life has changed. Take a vote, or include some of everyone’s ideas when thinking of ways to incorporate your deceased loved one into the already established family traditions. 

6. Set up a memorial table

Thanksgiving is a time when the family gathers around the table to eat, enjoy each other’s company, and celebrate the joys of the holiday season, giving thanks for all of the good things in one’s life. After the death of one of your family members, you may not feel like celebrating. The holidays will feel different now without their presence in the mix. 

Setting up a memorial table in honor of your deceased loved one might make it more bearable for you and your family. Ask everyone to contribute a special memento, favorite photo, or item that holds a special place in their heart. Consider lighting a special candle in their honor to symbolize your loved one’s presence in your hearts.

7. Set a place setting for them

The Thanksgiving dinner celebration probably won’t feel the same without your loved one there. Consider setting up a place setting in their honor and leaving their seat empty as a reminder that they are still very much present in your thoughts and minds. The family will need to adjust to the open seat, but in time it will feel as normal as it would having them physically present.

It isn’t necessary to serve a plate of food, although it’s required to do so as a sign of remembrance and respect to the deceased in some cultures. Ask your relatives how they feel about it and come up with a solution that makes sense for everyone present at the dinner table. 

» MORE: Honor those who served their country. Create a plan this Memorial Day.

8. Watch a favorite movie

If binge-watching movies over the holiday weekend is a part of your family’s holiday tradition, consider watching your loved one’s favorite film in honor of their memory. Consider also pulling out old home movies and watching them together so that the essence of your loved one is present in your celebration. 

In the event that there are no old home movies of your loved one, make one out of old photographs using an app like iMovie that can set photos to music and animation to give them a movie-like feel. 

9. Use old photos as place settings

Keeping with the theme of using photographs and images of your loved one who’s died, you can add old photos of them to your place settings to mark who will sit where. Try to find individualized pictures of your deceased loved one and the person who is to sit at each designated chair. It’s a sweet and memorable way of sharing your loved ones’ memories.  Your guests will surely appreciate the personalization of each place setting. 

To make it even more special, shop for some mini picture frames to add the place setting photos to. This way, everyone can take home a special memento of their Thanksgiving holiday celebration. 

10. End the feasting with a toast

Every celebration deserves a toast, so how about a toast to the departed to honor their life and the impact they made on your family. Go around to each guest and ask them to say a few words about your loved one and what they meant to them.

Be careful not to force someone to participate if they aren’t comfortable with doing so. This is supposed to be a festive occasion and not one that makes your guests feel sad and uncomfortable.

Examples of holiday toasts in memory of a departed loved one:

  • Over their hallowed graves may the winds of heaven whisper hourly benedictions.
  • She drank good ale, good punch, and wine and lived to the age of 99.
  • Time cuts down all, both great and small.
  • To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

Celebrating Thanksgiving Without a Loved One

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the blessings in your life. When a loved one has died, it may be challenging to give thanks when you’re still grieving their loss.

Creating new traditions and incorporating your deceased loved one in the old traditions can provide you with some peace and hope. Soon you may even be able to envision a future where things will get easier for you on every holiday.

If you're looking for more ways to support a loved one who's grieving this holiday season, read our guide on how to cope with grief during the holidays.

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.