The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table

Getting ready for the first Thanksgiving after David died was very, very hard. The loss of my husband’s brother and my best friend was still new and raw. How would we possibly celebrate the holiday without my kids’ magical uncle among us, making horrible puns and telling outrageous jokes? How could I face the pie baking we’d always done together the night before everyone else arrived? How could we go on?

Of course, we did go on, as people do. But that year our conversation was more subdued than usual because we were all so aware of the empty chair at our table; the absence that couldn’t be denied.

As the years have gone by, the loss has become less painful. Now our memories of David and others who’ve passed out of our lives are laced with humor and nostalgia. The chairs are empty. But the relationships with the people who once occupied them continue on in our shared memories and stories.

Negotiating through the first holiday season following a death is seldom uncomplicated. Although the traditions that evolve in subsequent years may be fine in their own way, holidays without our loved one will never be quite the same. The holidays after a recent death highlight the absence and often throw people into confusion. Grieving people know they should “move on” – whatever that means – but aren’t at all sure they want to and don’t know how. Those who care about the person in mourning want to be helpful but are equally confused about how to do it. It’s a situation that is poignantly human.

For those of you who have lost a loved one within the past year, thinking about the empty chair at the holiday table may intensify grief in all its complex manifestations: sadness, anger, resentment, and maybe even guilt about the loss and, yes, joy and sweetness and gratitude that the person was in your life. For those who care about the grieving person, it can be difficult to know how best to honor the memory without contributing to pain.

Grief counselors generally agree on some basic guidelines that can help you manage a personal loss or help you support those in mourning during the holiday season.

If you are the grieving person:

  • Allow yourself the right to grieve. American culture has a tough time with death. For some reason, there is pressure to get on with life within a year after a loss. That expectation is unrealistic and unfair. Most people take three to five years to fully accept the loss of someone they loved. If someone dear to you died during this past year, remind yourself that it’s normal and healthy to want to bow out of some of the events of the winter holidays that emphasize family and togetherness when you are feeling alone in a new and painful way.
  • Take care of yourself. Discipline yourself to get enough sleep, to eat right, and to follow your normal routines &ndash especially if you don’t feel like it. You’ll be better able to make good decisions about what makes sense for you to do over the holiday season.
  • Plan ahead. Do you want to be alone or will being with those who love you ease the pain? Really think about it. Sometimes being alone makes the aloneness much too hard to bear. Sometimes being in a crowd is overwhelming. Only you know what is best for you. Talk to key family members and ask them to support you in whichever decision you make.
  • Rethink hosting the party. If yours is the usual gathering place, think about whether you want to do it this year. Some people like getting lost in the details of planning and managing a dinner for twelve. But if you are one of those who finds it just too hard to make a party when in mourning, know that it’s okay to be “selfish” in times like these and to beg off. People who love you will understand. Those who don’t aren’t worth worrying about. At the very least, ask for help and accept all offers to spread the responsibilities around.
  • Give people permission to share stories. Many people have the idea that the best way to help someone in grief is to avoid talking about the person who has passed. Most of the time, they are mistaken. When we stop talking about someone is when they are really lost to the family. Let people know that as hard as it is that the person is no longer with us, it’s important to remember the good times, to laugh about funny things they did or said, and to acknowledge that he or she is missed.
  • Do things a little differently. For some people, doing the usual traditions and celebrations makes the loved one’s absence all the more painful. Think about whether doing things a bit differently or going to a different place would be helpful.

If you are a family member or friend of someone who is grieving:

  • Allow the person the right to grieve. Everyone does it differently. Some people want to withdraw from the world and work through their sadness alone. At the other end of the spectrum are those who manage by carrying on as usual and tempering the pain through the distraction of people and parties. Carefully consider what your loved one needs, not what you would do in the situation.
  • Take care. If you notice that your family member or friend isn’t eating, getting enough sleep, or functioning well at home and work, don’t ignore it. These are signs that the person is possibly getting clinically depressed. Invite the person to a meal. Talk to her about the importance of maintaining routines. If her inability to take care of herself is prolonged, do what you can to get her to a counselor.
  • Plan ahead. Ask the person in mourning what he wants to have happen at family events. How would he like to acknowledge the loss and at the same time keep the holiday going for everyone? Some families literally set an empty place at the table and take a moment to share anecdotes about the person who has passed away. Others make a toast to the memories. Still others offer a prayer. Talk together about what will feel best for everyone involved.
  • Offer help. If the grieving person is the one who usually hosts family gatherings, see if someone else can offer to do it this year. If she wants to keep up the tradition, get as many family members as possible to help with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, and whatever else needs to be done.
  • Talk to the grieving person about the loss. Listen without judgment. Resist giving advice. Just be there. Understand that grief comes and goes in intensity and frequency for quite awhile. It is by talking and listening that we all integrate sadness and gradually move on.
  • Try out a new activity that was never shared by the person who is gone. It’s helpful to do some things that aren’t shadowed by the fact that the last time we did them, the deceased person shared it. If people like the new ideas, they can become part of the family tradition. Or not. Leave that decision for next year.

Time does indeed heal most things. But everyone has his or her own sense of timing. If this is your first holiday season since the loss of a loved one, give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel and do what you need to do to get through it. Find ways to honor the memory of your loved one and to accept the support and care of those who love you.

If you are a friend or family member of someone who is grieving, give them support, love, and concrete assistance. By talking about their loved one and by listening to their stories and feelings, you help reassure them that the sadness may fade but our relationships with people we love never really end.

By Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D

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