During the holidays, many families go through difficult times because of the “empty chair” at the table that was once filled by a loved one. The holidays bring traditions and memories and interlaced with all of these are the people who are most dear to us. And whether the person left us around the holidays or not, the gathering of family without them makes something feel wrong, especially the first few years after their passing.
My brother-in-law passing just around 2 years ago has made such an impact. My wife’s only biological sibling, it’s been difficult to experience the holidays without him, especially for her. Being an only child I can’t relate, but a sibling that you grow up with has a history with you unlike any other on the planet, including parents. There were moments and perspectives that you shared that no one else could relate to or even know about; those inside jokes, the references, the common experiences, etc. And especially around the holidays, there are even stronger, more emotional memories that you had shared. All of this makes feeling “festive” at the festive gatherings difficult.
No matter who was sitting in that empty chair, there is a gradual mourning process that must take place. Traditions can’t go on as usual. Things often need to change.
So, what can we do if we are struggling with the loss of a loved one over the holidays?
ACKNOWLEDGE IT – Especially if you are on the elder side of life, your ability and permission to acknowledge that things just “feel weird” is incredibly helpful to allow others to feel and process the same feelings.
CELEBRATE THE CHAIR – A suggestion for a lot of families is to actually either decorate the chair or write special notes and leave them on it. Again, this is part of the mourning process and can be a further way to celebrate the life of the person who has passed. AND this continues to bring closure for people around the table.
BEGIN SOMETHING NEW – Sometimes a fresh tradition – a game, a movie, an outing – connected to the holiday can begin to usher in a new set of traditions. Especially when younger children are involved, the ability to form something new can bring the family together in a new way and give a positive focus to the gatherings.
In our culture there is often so much stress on the celebration side of the holidays that we forget to give ourselves space and permission to grieve the “empty chair” or often, “empty chairs”. It’s important to take this critical time, especially early in the grieving process, to allow ourselves to deeply feel our loss and begin to move forward.
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