Managing Thanksgiving When Your Loved One is in Long-Term Mental Health Treatment: A Guide for Families

Long-term mental health care is effective for managing mental illness and making lasting, positive changes for improved quality of life. But, for those in treatment and their families, it can also be a tough journey. This is especially true on family holidays like Thanksgiving. If you have a loved one in treatment during the holidays, take steps to help them feel loved and not forgotten, and to manage your own mental health as you wait for them to be ready to come home.

The holidays are already stressful. Thanksgiving dinner, especially for the host, often comes with impossible expectations, disappointments, and tense family relations. With a spouse, sibling, or parent in long-term treatment for mental illness, you may have even more difficult emotions and situations: depression, anxiety, loneliness. You also face the tough task of explaining them to others.

Take steps to manage your stress, to include your loved one in treatment when possible, and to let go of unreasonable expectations. If you can do these things, and keep a healthy perspective about your loved one’s care, Thanksgiving can still be enjoyable.

Take Steps for Self-Care – Manage Holiday Stress

Everyone loves the holidays, and yet most people also experience significant stress at this time of year. Surveys show that most people have more stress during the holidays, like Thanksgiving, than during other times of the year. One of the major reasons cited was interpersonal family dynamics.

In other words, being around family, facing their expectations, navigating difficult relationships, and coping with the past hurts all trigger stress. If you have a loved one in long-term care, explaining why they are not at Thanksgiving dinner is yet another stress.

If you can come into the holiday with your stress managed in advance, you’ll be better situated to cope with the inevitable questions and judgments. There are a lot of things you can do in advance of Thanksgiving dinner to keep your worries and stress at bay:

  • Rehearse your answers. Facing other family members and their questions probably causes the most stress. You can minimize a lot of the anxiety by doing some prep work. Decide what and how much you want to say, and then practice. Feeling prepared helps alleviate worry.
  • Take care of your health. Thanksgiving week is busy, and it’s easy to slack off on healthy habits. Take time to sleep enough, get exercise every day, and eat well, even if it means not making that crafty centerpiece. Managing stress and health is more important.
  • Use relaxation strategies. As you feel the stress build, and before, use strategies like yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization to relax.

All of this will better prepare you to handle the stress and other difficult emotions during Thanksgiving. On that day and during family events that trigger stress, take care of yourself first. Walk away if you need to calm down for a few minutes. Don’t let anyone pressure you into saying more about your loved one in treatment than makes you comfortable.

Reach Out if You Feel Lonely

If the absence of your loved one for the holiday has left you feeling isolated and lonely, reach out to others for support and comfort. Talk to other family members, go out with a few friends, and maintain these important social connections. You’ll feel better for it.

You may even want to consider joining a support group. Family members of people struggling with mental illness or addiction benefit from the support of others in similar circumstances. Whether it’s online or in person, a support group can help you feel more connected and less alone.

Spend a Family Day at the Treatment Center

Your loved one can’t be home for Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s hard for both of you. But you can go to them, if not on Thanksgiving then at least during the week. Participate in any organized family activities, or just spend some time with your loved one.

If appropriate, you may want to have a phone call or video call with your loved one on Thanksgiving. This may not be a good idea for everyone in treatment, as it could trigger some difficult emotions. So talk to your loved one about it and ask them to talk to their therapists to determine if there is a safe and productive way to share the holiday virtually.

Honor and Talk About Your Loved One, if Appropriate

With a close-knit family group for Thanksgiving, it may be appropriate to talk about someone who cannot be there. Ignoring the empty seat is not always the best way to approach missing a loved one at the holidays.

On the other hand, your loved one may not want to be a topic of discussion. Talk to them ahead of time to find out what they are comfortable with you talking about, if anything. If it’s okay with them, inform the family of the situation. Discuss how important it is for them to be in treatment and recognize their courage and strength during this time.

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Forget the Perfect Thanksgiving

Trying to meet the expectations of others, or even your own, is a major source of holiday stress. Your Thanksgiving dinner is never going to be like a movie or what you see in advertisements. Let go of those expectations to enjoy the day more.

This can be tough because there are so many standard expectations: a happy, complete family, an elaborate home cooked meal, and full, satisfied, tired guests at the end of the meal. With one family member missing, it can’t possibly be everything you want, and that’s okay. There’s always next year.

Plan your Thanksgiving in a way that makes sense this year, even if that means disappointing family or even telling them you can’t host this time. If someone else is hosting, and you just cannot face it this year, don’t be afraid to decline. Do what’s best for you and your family, not what you think others expect.

Focus on Gratitude

Gratitude is what Thanksgiving is all about, but it’s easy to forget that in the hustle and the bustle of the season. With your loved one unable to attend, you may find it difficult to give thanks, but it’s worth trying. There are proven, real benefits of practicing gratitude, of recognizing what you have instead of focusing on what you do not.

Missing someone you care about on the holidays is sad, but you have reasons to be hopeful and thankful. They are getting the treatment they need to manage mental illness and live a better life. Take time to reflect on this and other positive things in your life. It will take the focus off the negative and make you happier.

Follow your instincts when it comes to having Thanksgiving during a loved one’s long-term mental health treatment. If it feels like too much, if you don’t want to host, or if you simply want to be alone that day, do what’s right for you. Don’t feel pressured by anyone else, and as you miss your loved one, reach out. Talk to them in any way that is allowed and appropriate. Maintain that connection and provide support as they work toward a better life.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.