Real talk: Expressing gratitude this Thanksgiving won’t be easy.

There will be no turkey with the fixins at grandma’s house because climbing COVID-19 numbers makes it too dangerous to visit. Half of us aren’t speaking to each other — we can thank the contentious presidential election for that. Job losses coupled with an uncertain economy means the pomp and Prosecco of the holiday season will be on ice.

Carrying on a pleasant dinner conversation when the mood is so low — feels impossible.

What do we talk about when we aren’t sure what to talk about? How do we keep the chitchat upbeat without feeling like we are faking it?

We’ve compiled tips and conversation prompts to help you have intentional and meaningful conversations. The goal: To help you create a new narrative around the Thanksgiving holiday when the old ones are out of reach.

Useful conversation prompts

What are we thankful for?

There is still much to be thankful for, said the Rev. Charles Howard, chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania. “We have our health. We have dinner. We may have recovered from COVID-19, these are all things we can take turns sharing.”

Gratitude prompts:

  • What are you grateful for in this very moment? Could it be your mother’s special mashed potatoes she only makes on Thanksgiving? Could it be the fact you reproduced these mashed potatoes yourself?
  • What are you most grateful about how you’ve handled this year’s tough times? What did you learn?
  • Name three people you are most grateful for in your life, and explain why.
  • Are there any essential workers you are particularly grateful for? Maybe it was a favorite nurse. Maybe it’s a grocery store cashier. Extra credit: Find a way to show them you’re thankful.
  • Did you actually accomplish something on your bucket list during quarantine? Pick up a new skill?
  • Have you started any new self-care rituals? Which ones are you most grateful for?
How to survive Thanksgiving 2020
Cynthia Greer
How to survive Thanksgiving 2020
What can we learn about our family?

Family stories are a normal part of family gatherings, said Heidi Rose, chair of Villanova University’s communication department, but this year we might want to make a deliberate effort to tap into old memories. “These stories are so important because they illustrate our roots,” Rose said. “They help us relive old memories, and the little ones learn important things about their family and create their own memories.” Pro-tip: Break out the family album. You will be amazed what old stories those black-and-whites and Polaroids will jog.

Storytelling prompts:

  • How did the first Thanksgiving meal you ever prepared turn out?
  • Did you ever spend Thanksgiving alone?
  • What was your best Thanksgiving ever?
  • What was the first job you had to earn money for Christmas shopping?
  • What was grandma and grandpa or mom and dad’s first holiday like together?
What will the future hold?

Start visualizing your 2021 and share it with the people you love the most. “Sharing our dreams offers a window into who we are,” said Vera Ludwig, research associate of mindfulness and relationships at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “Now might be the time to speak our dreams aloud and give them life.”

Dream prompts:

  • What do you hope to accomplish next year? How can the people around the table help you accomplish that? What will you have to change in your life to make that happen? How can you help other folks around the table accomplish their goals? Offer help and words of encouragement.
  • Where will you go when it’s safe to travel?
  • What do you want to do when we are free to walk around mask-less?
  • What are some ways you plan to give back when it’s safe?

Tips for having better conversations with family

1. Deal with your emotions

Before you even think about talking to family, get clear on how you’re feeling, said Vera Ludwig, research associate of mindfulness and relationships at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. This is not the time to suppress your feelings. Ludwig says that means sitting in your anger over the election. Mourn the lost job. Admit you will miss your mom’s string bean casserole. “When you validate the emotion you control it; it doesn’t control you,” Ludwig said. “In time you will be able to give yourself a big hug and be able to begin to think about the things you are grateful for.”


2. Remember the kids

Just because we’re not sure what to talk about doesn’t mean our kids are unsure, too, said Hallee Adelman, an educator and author of a series of children’s books that explore big feelings, the latest Way Past Mad. Chances are our kids are a lot calmer than we are right now. And while yes, their lives have been tossed upside down too, they aren’t as consumed with anxiety about the future. It’s still important to see how they’re feeling, Adelman said. Include them in the conversations, and you might even let them lead a few. “Kids bring levity and excitement,” Adelman said. “And their presence will help adults stay in a lane that is fun, authentic, and appropriate.”


3. Set ground rules

It's not a bad idea to call your politics-obsessed uncle or hypochondriac sister in advance of the larger family Zoom call and tell them to cool it, says Heidi Rose, chair of Villanova University’s communication department. “You still want that person to bring their authentic self,” Rose said. “You just want to impress upon them that now is not the time to be dark and negative or make people uncomfortable. Tell them you are trying to use this time to create some positive memories.”