The Empty Chair at the Table at the Holidays

The heart holds memories, and we can relive them at our whim. There are times when we avoid turning back the pages when what we recall brings up images of people we will never see again in this lifetime. There is no statute of limitations on grief. No cookie cutter way to cope with sorrow. Bereavement specialist, Dr. Yvonne Kaye has spoken at length about the impact of grief when someone we love dies. She has said that we don’t get over loss, we get on with our lives. She has shepherded numerous people through their loss journeys.

Dr. Kaye offers a tidbit of wisdom from a bereaved parent with whom she had worked. The woman told her that although that type of inconceivable experience created a hole in her heart, she had learned to plant flowers in it. No one or nothing can completely fill the space, nor should they. She also reframes the concept that people often offer those who are grieving, that they need to be strong. Her take is that when you are strong, it means you do not need anyone. Rather, she professes, we all have strengths. Think of it as resilience, either hard wired into us or acquired as we mature.

Anniversaries of the person’s death, their birthdays and other noteworthy events often bring emotions boomeranging back, even if we think we are integrating the losses into our lives. Holidays are particularly fraught times. We may watch others celebrating and we wonder how they can do ‘normal people’ things when we feel split in half with grief. We may expect ourselves to put on a face as bright and shiny as the ornaments on a tree or the flames on the menorah or kinara. What we suppress can bounce back at us like a beach ball held under the water for too long. When we cry, we allow ourselves to heal some of our wounds. Grief is a measure of love.

As we gather with family and friends, there may be some who are sitting with an empty chair at the table that was once occupied by a dear one. Their absence is palpable. When the death has occurred around holiday time as it was for a friend who lost her husband on 12/21/98, her mother on 11/26/2010 and a dear friend on 12/30/2018, the depth is more profound. She has said that her body would react near the holidays as it did when the actual deaths occurred.

Ways to celebrate to the best of your ability, include:

  • Have a literal place at the table for those who have died.
  • Share stories about them. Say their names.
  • Laugh at funny memories.
  • Create an altar for your lost loved one, with quotes, photos, etc. that remind you of that dear one
  • Donate to a charity in their.
  • Practice a ritual that you enjoyed doing with them.
  • Create a new ritual.
  • Have photos of them around you.
  • Cook their favorite foods.
  • Stay home if you feel it would be too stressful to be with people.
  • Honor your feelings as they arise.
  • Avoid drinking or drugging away your feelings.
  • Ease back into holiday routines at your own pace.

Addiction recovery meetings, bereavement support groups, hospice programs, a compassionate and competent therapist, and pastoral support can help ease the sting of life’s losses, especially around holiday time.

In her TED Talk writer and podcaster Nora McInerny shares her hard-earned wisdom about life and death. She reminds us that “We don’t ‘move on’ from grief, We move forward with it.”

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