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  • Writer's picturePinky Alger

The Empty Chair

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Getting ready for the first Thanksgiving after my son died was so hard, everything was so raw. How would we possibly celebrate Thanksgiving without my son, who would slice the apples for the pie, who would rip the bread for the stuffing? Who would make inappropriate jokes quietly while we were eating dinner? We did go on, but his absence was felt the entire day. Why wasn’t he in one of the chairs making his Turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich on the little dinner rolls.

The first holiday is complicated. Holidays without our loved one will never be quite the same. The holidays highlight the absence and often throw people into confusion. Those who care about us want to be helpful, but they are equally confused about how to do it.

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 your grief. You may feel sadness, anger, resentment, guilt, sorrow that feels like it’s ripping your heart in two. And then you may also feel joy and sweetness and gratitude that the person was in your life. It’s like an ocean coming and going back and forth.

Here are a few things that may help during the holiday season.

  • Allow yourself to grieve!!! 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. If you want to stay in bed then stay in bed, you can make Turkey another day.

  • Take care of yourself. Discipline yourself to get enough sleep, to eat right, and to follow your normal routines – 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? Do you want to be with family / friends who support you? 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, know that it’s okay to be ask someone else to host. 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.

As the years have gone by, the pain is softer. We laugh at old stories and continue telling them to keep my sons memory alive, especially for the younger children in the family who never meet him. His chair is empty but the memories are full. The main thing is to take care of you. You deserve it!!!!!

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