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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

In her groundbreaking book "On Death and Dying," Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages helped many people approach the difficult topics of death and grief. But this is a Thanksgiving column, a happy subject, and no one is dying but the turkey. I'm just acknowledging Dr. Kubler-Ross as I offer, in time for this Thursday's feast and with considerably less gravity, the five stages of Thanksgiving: preparation, cooking, eating, gratitude and cleanup.

Stage One: preparation. For many extended families, including mine, preparation begins with the decision of whose home will be overrun with relatives on Thanksgiving Day, as well as perhaps the night before and definitely the day after. Once the setting has been chosen, emails circulate regarding who is going to provide each component of the admittedly too-large meal. The people who love to cook promise to try new recipes, as well as to bring the traditional favorites, essentially over-committing themselves. Those of us who aren't gifted in the kitchen sign up to bring the drinks and the little paper dessert plates with turkeys on them.

Preparation includes grocery shopping, which, if you wait until the day before Thanksgiving, will require combat skills to secure the ingredients on your list, and the physical endurance to stand in line for an eternity to pay for the last can of cranberry sauce or the last bag of stuffing mix in town. Procrastination is not preparation's friend.

Stage Two: cooking. The cooking stage always takes longer than expected, causing delays to mealtime and the logistical puzzle of serving everything hot at the same time. Some cooking begins early in the morning, as bread dough rises, pies bake and the turkey is dressed. Some things must be done at the very last moment, such as mashing the potatoes or whipping the cream. Cooking can also be accomplished in a remote location, i.e., the chef's own kitchen, before traveling to the host location.

Two things: never say you'll prepare your dish at home and then change your mind without telling your host, thereby messing up the creative flow of the host's kitchen.

And never arrive with the expectancy of oven space to heat up your concoction. On Thanksgiving, there is no free oven space.

At some point during the cooking, there will be football. Thanksgiving traditionally is a day for ancient rivalries, some of which occur on a football field. The non-fans may complain, but we must be gentle with them, because they don't understand the significance of divisional matchups. They can stand a little football, especially if they make us watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Stage three: eating. By "eating," I mean the whole family gathered at the table to say grace and break bread together in a way we seldom do during the rest of the year. Thanksgiving is eating as ceremony.

The prayer, of course, can be problematic, if there are differing denominations and/or atheists in the family. Too much religion can be as debilitating as none at all, so the host must strive for grace with diplomacy.

The centerpiece gives way to the invasion of serving bowls and platters and bottles and baskets in the middle of the table.

Then comes serious eating. The ingestion of too many grams of protein, fat, and carbs, laced with the tranquilizing effect of tryptophan, on any other day would mute all interest in the dessert spread, but not on Thanksgiving, when there's room for sugar and spice.

Alcoholic beverages at the Thanksgiving table are like religion: too much and too little are the poles between which to navigate. Conversation during eating may tackle the forbidden topics of religion and politics, but as long as participants behave in an expansive, full-bellied way, all will be well.

Stage four: gratitude. When you reach this stage of Thanksgiving, your stomach and your heart are full. The ritual has endured for another year. Be grateful. Bask in gratitude. Embody thanksgiving.

If the aforementioned new recipe was an embarrassment, be grateful that there was plenty of food to make up for its shortcomings. If there was plenty of food, be grateful that your family need not go hungry on this special day.

If your family sticks around after dinner, be grateful that the love you share is a bond that holds tight through all sorts of stress and strain. Gratitude is digestion for the soul.

Stage five: cleanup. With any luck, that one wonderful cousin who doesn't cook but always does the dishes will work his magic and organize the cleanup. The host kitchen looks like a war zone by Thanksgiving night, and someone must perform triage and tend to the wounded.

Along with the dishes, use this final stage to clean up any hard feelings, unspoken resentments or misunderstandings, because life is fleeting, and because the faces at this year's table may be gone by next year's feast. Which is when the five stages of Thanksgiving will come round again, thanks be to God.