The Empty Chair: Honoring Grief On The Holidays
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Holidays look different on this side of grief. So why do we try to force it to be what it was? It's ok that life is not what we planned and the same goes for holidays. Reality is that there will always be an empty seat at my table and a missing piece of my heart. This is my truth. If I've learned anything it's that in order to maintain my peace I must surrender to what is and be willing to be honest about how I feel. My child is physically gone but his light shines in my life daily and I will continue to honor him in everything that I do.
Counting down to the holidays with dread isn't helpful. Instead, I focus on the present day without bracing for the heartbreak that may be lurking around the corner. I planned to make a carrot cake tomorrow for Thanksgiving but last night I got the urge to bake, so I made it. I am not putting more weight on Thanksgiving than any other day. We ate the cake and enjoyed it! And now if I still want carrot cake on Thanksgiving I can just make it again. I have made the decision to live for today because any parent who has lost a child knows that we cannot count tomorrows.
The holidays are a difficult time for many people who have experienced loss. We hear songs that say "It's the most beautiful time of the year" and we think to ourselves about all that we've lost and all that is missing. We start thinking about the favorite dish that we won't be making for our special someone this year and the laugh that we won't hear and it all becomes overwhelming.
We miss our loved ones everyday but something about the holiday season seems to magnify the empty chair at the table. When we have spent our lives anticipating family games, songs, food, and fellowship on the holidays the thought of one of our favorite people not being here to partake in the festivities can be suffocating.
My family used to look forward to the upcoming holiday, planning out large family gatherings with excitement. 2018 was the last holiday season before my son's sudden departure and it was perfect because we were together. At the time, there were many things I would have done differently, but now I hold onto the beauty in every moment we shared. I replay our Thanksgiving gratitude walk and our family outing to see Creed 2. I remember falling asleep on the couch, just Damani and I on New Year's Eve and waking up (after midnight) to do our countdown. I still have the unopened bottle of sparkling cider that I bought him that we never drank. At the time I felt bad that we didn't do more to bring in the year but now I cherish the cuddles we had on our last New Year's Eve together.
Last year was my first holiday season without Damani. He used to sit in the kitchen and watch me cook, talking and laughing as we made our way through preparing all his favorite dishes- macaroni and cheese, roast, peach cobbler, red velvet cake. It was our first time sitting together at the dinner table since he had left and staring at his empty chair felt like being kicked in the gut.
Many grieving parents dread the holiday invites, to have to go sit and be reminded of what a happy family looks like as we watch friends and relatives celebrate how complete their families are. We want them to be happy but we desperately want the emptiness in our gut to go away and seeing them so perfectly in tact makes it all so unbearable. Sometimes the thought of seeing everyone with their kids laughing and smiling makes me want to lay down in a dark room for an unspecified amount of time. We sit there silently crying on the inside, yet trying to smile so as to not bring everyone else down. Everyone talks about their children's accomplishments and there is an awkward silence when eyes glance at us. I remember one gathering, every time I tried to talk about Damani someone found a way to change the subject. I know now that they just did not understand my desperate need to keep him alive even if was just through sharing memories and hearing his name. Honoring my grief on the holidays (and any day for that matter) includes honoring my child so anyone who is not ok with that is not someone I'll be spending my holiday with. Speak your loved ones name, share stories that make you smile and help you feel their ever-present love.
Last year I decided, as the holidays approached, not to force myself to do the expected holiday traditions. For me it is back to back sucker punches to the gut. Thanksgiving, then Damani's birthday, then Christmas, then New Year's, then my birthday. A tsunami of emotions! I decided to do what felt right for me and my immediate family in protecting our energy and honoring where we were with our grief. We did a small dinner with just the 3 of us for Thanksgiving. Looking at Damani's empty chair was so hard. For Christmas, we decided to just escape it all- I didn't want to stare at his empty chair. So we traveled to Costa Rica and it was the best decision ever! We just wanted to find peace with each other and not have to spend another holiday staring at that empty chair. This trip was such an awakening for me- it was the first time I felt alive since losing my son. We hiked, we discovered waterfalls, lounged on the beach- I felt his presence in the breeze, the waves... in everything around me.
We started our new tradition and plan to do the same this holiday season- a small dinner for 3 on Thanksgiving and soul rejuvenating travel for Christmas (if COVID allows).
Do not feel pressured to keep your usual traditions going if it is overwhelming. You can create new traditions that honor where you are and honor the person who passed on. A nontraditional holiday can be a temporary break until you decide you would like to start incorporating old traditions back in or it can be your new routine. If your living children prefer traditional holiday celebrations find ways to honor what each individual needs. You can do the traditional celebration and still find ways to honor your departed loved one.
There's no one size fits all. Do what feels right for your family. And if you don't know how to say no to a dinner invite that might bring you more anxiety then joy, you can always use COVID as an excuse.
We can feel love, joy, peace and hope for the holidays. I am making an active choice to focus on these things and not just the loss. The loss is there. It doesn't take additional effort to remember that. Every time I think of the loss I think of a beautiful memory to remind myself that "all is not lost as long as love still lives."
Ideas for new traditions:
Make non-traditional holiday meal
Go to a restaurant for holiday meal
Have a small intimate holiday meal with immediate family (close friends)
Make your loved ones favorite dishes
Go on a trip and skip focusing on the holiday all together
Go around in circle and have each person share special memories of your loved one
Create a holiday card with your loved one's picture and/or favorite saying
Ask family members to light a candle at their homes in honor of your loved one
We have to be more intentional about protecting our peace during times that we know can be triggering for us. I have been journaling, meditating, praying, and practicing gratitude to be proactive about fighting the holiday triggers.
Ideas for Holiday Peace Practices:
Going for walks
Social media detox
What activities will you do to help yourself get through this time of the year?
Do you plan to start any new traditions?
Click the link to view video from our family healing holiday escape to Costa Rica including guided meditations: