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The Empty Seat at the Table

December 18, 2021
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Amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it is easy to forget there are those who do not share the season’s revelry.  The loss of a loved one casts a deep sadness no carol can sing away. 

Most people will, at some time in their life, experience an ‘empty seat at the table’—when the death of a loved one creates a profound emptiness around not only the physical chair that person occupied, but around the traditions they supported.  The holidays are full of traditions, things we do and say in similar ways through generations until it is so familiar it almost a ritual.  And while the very nature of being alive is to grow and change, tradition and change are very painful bedfellows. 

The most common reasons for an ‘empty seat at the table’ are death and divorce, but circumstances with insurmountable physical distancing can create a similar heartache:  military deployment, kids far away at college or a job, family and friends overseas, and even health issues, as we discovered collectively last year during a world-wide pandemic. 

An ‘empty seat at the table’ is a grief issue.  It is personal and also collective within the family unit.  Therefore, using the death of a grandparent as an example, each family member will be grieving the loss of their personal relationship, and the family as a collective group will feel the absence of a key member.  The emotional dynamic when everyone is together is now different and can never be exactly the same as it was.  The most important thing to remember here is that we all grieve differently.

Let me give a brief shout out to grief here.  Grieving as a verb—an action—is rarely talked about in American public life.  A short 100 years ago it was common to live in multigenerational homes where grandmothers delivered the babies of their daughters, then helped cook and raise the children, while grandfathers and sons worked farmland or a trade side by side.  (Millenials, google “The Waltons” and watch the first episode.  Ever heard your grandparents say, “Goodnight, John-boy.”?)  People were born and they died at home, and birth and death were regular, predictable experiences of the family unit.  When someone died there were clear and openly-public signs of grieving:  wearing dark colors, hanging heavy fabric drapes across front porches (“hanging crepe”), lowering family flags and declining all social entertainments.  The family was said to be “in mourning.”  The community joined in the public grieving by lowering flags to half-mast, tying on black armbands, and pealing church bells to announce the death and/or the funeral.  Grieving was as common and acceptable as the change of seasons, and this chaplain believes as a people we grieved in a much healthier way than we do today.

Many cultural factors have come to bear on the evolution of our grief practices, but grief itself has not changed.  It is the deeply personal process of saying good-bye to a loved one and finding healthy closure to a significant relationship.  And yes—you have all heard it—there is no correct timetable for grieving.  Each person must follow their own path.

When I am counseling someone through an ‘empty seat at the table’ season I assess two things:  Is this a permanent or temporary loss? And, is this the first or subsequent season of that loss?  For the sake of brevity, I am only going to address a permanent loss, knowing that the same techniques with modification may be used for a temporary loss.

If this is the initial season after a loss the focus is simply on getting through it.  For subsequent seasons the plan is to create a new, different tradition (however similar or dissimilar) which honors the old tradition.

In a first season when the loss is fresh you may be amazed at the energy it takes to plan for a merry, holiday season.  In fact, you’ll soon find that ‘merry’ might have to be tossed out the door!  Without actively thinking, you know the season will be different because you are different.  This is emotional energy you are expending, and though you don’t see the energy riding itself out on a treadmill, your body is physically expending calories to support you as you process.  Processing emotional energy (“emotional work” as it is called in spiritual care) is heavy work that we are not used to in our day to day.  It can be exhausting.

So, the initial recommendation in a first season of grief is always to take very good and focused care of yourself.  Get all the sleep you need (more than you think), exercise, eat healthy foods, and drink a lot of water.  Get your flu shot and your Covid booster.  Make it a goal to keep your physical health as good as it can be.  Feeling sick or unwell makes every part of grieving worse.

Secondly, talk with your close family and friends to discuss priorities of the season.  Don’t try to do everything you typically have done.  Pick two or three traditions that are most important to you and move forward.  Allow others to lead or assume responsibilities that were previously yours even if just for this year.  Remember, many hands make light work.

If there is an event or tradition you simply can’t face, then don’t.  Walk away.  Replace it with a different, pleasurable activity:  a concert or church service, dinner with friends, a movie night or walk at a holiday lighting event.  Be creative.  Although it may be tempting to withdraw in your grief, isolation is not a holiday friend.  Share your sadness with others and allow them to console you. Your words will be cathartic for you and, allowing others to express their loss of your loved one, a catharsis to them.  It is healing for everyone—a bit of holiday medicine.

As the family unit comes together in a first holiday season, remember that each person, whether they realize it or not, is going through the individual grief process, even children.  It is a good idea to bring this up and talk about it rather than ignore it.  ‘The empty seat at the table’ is after all the elephant in the room—at the table.  Ask others how they are feeling.  Allow everyone who would like to express themselves, including children.  Be careful not to judge or offer opinions about others’ grief.  This isn’t a competition or a piece of art.  Simply support one another with validation, like “I feel that, too” and understanding, like “It’s OK to cry.”  Is there something that all of you together can do or say that will replicate something the deceased person would have typically done in a way that gives that action honor?

In a second season of ‘the empty seat at the table’ the focus is to adapt and change traditions to reflect the new circumstances.  Again, I say be creative!  Decorating, menus, holiday sports and hobbies can all be up for an inspiring remodel.  Choose new places and new things to do.  Choose new people to do them.  Did Grandpa always read A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve?  Have a new family member take that up if it is a cherished tradition.  Was the last night of Hannukah always at Grandpa and Grandma’s?  Well, perhaps Aunt Anya and Uncle Tre will take that on.  Was it the loved one who always handed out the gifts?  Put everyone’s name in a hat and have the youngest draw out the name of the person who will be ‘Santa’ that year!  It’s a new tradition, and the anticipation of being the winner will build over time!

The second season is also a good time for bequeathing.  Both special collections and common objects can become significant gifts for family members.  Bequeathed items are a tangible token of the deceased person and their life and are especially meaningful when given to someone who shared that experience with them.  For children who enjoyed cooking in the kitchen with Grandpa you might gift each grandchild with one of his cookbooks that have favorite recipes.  Did Grandma love to garden or feed birds?  Simple things like birdfeeders, birdhouses (cleaned out!) and hand tools evoke happy memories and allow new generations to connect with a loved one by experiencing something that loved one cared about.  When it comes to bequeathing the sky is the limit.  Think outside the box and be creative.

I think one of the most healing ways to move forward after the loss of a loved one is to create a new tradition that reflects a value important to your loved one.  Is there a scholarship you can set up at their high school, college, or training school?  Churches, YMCAs and local organizations are always looking for funds to enable children to attend camp and other special activities.  Was your Grandfather a Boy Scout leader?  Could they use annual money for boys to attend the National Jamboree?

What about giving of your time?  Your family could make it a new tradition to volunteer with an organization that was important to your loved one, and perhaps most meaningful if that organization has an annual holiday event.  Can you wrap packages?  Deliver items?  Help with a Silent Auction or sing Christmas carols?  Anything family members do together strengthens that family and regaining strength after the death of a loved one does heal.

If you find yourself in a season of ‘the empty seat at the table,’ take time to reflect on what you can and cannot do in this first or subsequent season, and then draw your family and friends around you and make a plan.  Know you are not alone—that death and grief are very normal and expected parts of what it means to be human.  They are simply very difficult at the holiday season and other special times.  Reach out to others in your neighborhood and community.  You may find unexpected support, help and creativity.  And as you move forward with new traditions, they will become familiar also, and will give you a new perspective over time on the gift of that loved one to your life.

 

Suzy Browning is a Client Service Representative at Prosperity Advisors, LLC in the Overland Park, KS office.  She is also a Family Physician, no longer practicing, and a professional chaplain.