The Empty Chair at Holidays

Last updated: December 2018

We are entering the time of year that joins families far and wide together. We celebrate Thanksgiving and then come Hanukah and Christmas celebrations. It is a blessed and sacred time for many of us.

Remembering my son this season

It is also a time of reflection and sorrow, especially if you, like me, have an empty chair at the table this season. The holidays take on a whole different dimension when we're celebrating all that is good in the world when it doesn't necessarily feel like anything is.

My son died suddenly and unexpectedly on November 2, 2018. He didn't die of cancer. In fact, as of now, we don't know why he died. The Medical Examiner is still trying to figure that out. Regardless of the cause of death, our loved one is no longer here. And with the holiday season looming, that's tough.

The remaining family unit, in our case, quite small - my 88-year-old Mom, my brother, daughter-in-law, husband and me - gathered a week or so after my son died to discuss what we were going to do about the holidays. My son loved this time of year. He was a very generous individual who thrived on helping others and making people happy.

How do we approach the holidays this year?

So, we wondered, should we cancel Thanksgiving? Due to a variety of circumstances, his memorial service is still pending. Would it be wrong to gather to eat good food and talk about those things for which we are still thankful when we haven't even officially "laid him to rest," we wondered?

Everyone handles grief in their own way. No one way is right. No one way is wrong. Here's what we decided:

  1. Our loved one would want for us to be sad that he is gone, but he would also want us to continue living.
  2. We can celebrate his life together as a family unit.
  3. We can remember that, despite our devastating and surprising loss, there is still much for which to be thankful.

On the other hand, when it came right down to it, my husband was unable to make himself go to my mom's house to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was just going to be too hard.

Our Thanksgiving without my son...

So, what's the take-away?

Our small family gathered, with two empty chairs (one for our son, one for my husband), for Thanksgiving. Despite our profound sense of loss, we laughed, talked about the good times, remembered with fondness and love the good times we had when our loved one was with us. Eyes watered up from time to time, but the atmosphere was anything but maudlin.

The reality of going through the first holiday without my only child is that it wasn't as hard as I imagined it would be. He might not have been there in person, but his spirit surrounded us. At one point, after we'd been sitting at the table long after finishing eating, the lights flickered. My brother said, "Well, he's signaling it is time for us to get up and go get some dessert!"

My husband sat at home alone and mourned the fact that things have changed irrevocably. He focused on regrets and what-ifs and whys. These are all things that cannot be answered and cannot be changed. They bring emptiness and despair.

Celebrating life in the face of loss

Again, everyone faces grief and loss in his or her own way. But, my stance, especially during this sacred time of the year, is to focus on the positives. Yes, our hearts are broken that our loved one is gone. Our lives will never be the same again. Every day brings a new realization of just how much he is missed.

But, we can honor his life by reflecting on all that was good about his life. In the words of songwriters Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, we can accentuate the positives and latch onto the affirmative and try to eliminate the negative. There's a hole deep inside that will forever be empty, but I choose to dwell on a life well-lived and on all of the good that came from the fact that my son walked on this earth for 43 years.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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