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The Empty Seat at the Table

November 18, 2023

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 absence 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 loss 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, and tradition and change can be 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, and even health issues, as we discovered two years ago during a world-wide pandemic. 

The ‘empty seat at the table’ is a grief issue. It is personal and collective, too, within the family unit. Each family member will be grieving the loss of their personal relationship, and the family as a group will feel the absence of a key member. 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 today 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. 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 public signs of grieving: wearing dark colors, hanging heavy fabric drapes across front porches (“hanging crepe”), lowering family flags and declining social entertainments. The family was “in mourning.” 

The community joined in the public grieving by lowering flags to half-staff, 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. 

Grieving 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 counsel 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 here. 

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

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. ‘Merry’ might get kicked to the curb! Without actively thinking, you know the season will be different because you are different. Your body is physically burning calories to support your mind as you process. “Emotional work”, as it is called in spiritual care, is draining work that we are not used to in our day to day. 

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. Being sick or unwell makes every part of grieving worse. 

Next, talk with your close family and friends to discuss priorities for the season. Don’t try to do everything you have typically done. Pick a few 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. 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 feelings, a catharsis to them. It is healing for everyone—a bit of holiday medicine!

As the family unit comes together in a first season of loss, remember that each person, whether they realize it or not, is going through the individual processing of grief--even children. It is a good idea to raise the issue 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 to do so, including children. 

In a second season of the ‘empty seat at the table’ the focus is to adapt and change traditions to reflect new circumstances. Be creative! Decorating, menus, sporting events and hobbies can all be up for an inspiring remodel. Choose new places and new things to do. Choose new people to do them.

The second season is also a good time for bequeathing. Bequeathed items are a tangible token of your loved one’s life. They are especially meaningful when given to someone who shared that activity with them. Both special collections and common objects can become meaningful gifts for family members. Cookbooks, hand tools, hobby-specific machinery and collections—or individual items from them—are great ideas! 

I think one of the most healing ways to move forward after the loss of someone is to create a new tradition that reflects a value that was important to them. Is there a scholarship you can set up at their high school, college, or training school? Is there a non-profit for which your loved one volunteered? Or a social justice issue they were passionate about?  

What about giving your time? Your family could make a new tradition to volunteer with an organization important to your loved one. Anything family members do together strengthens that family, and regaining strength is healing. 

So, 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. 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. 

Reach out to others in your neighborhood and community for support, help and creative ideas. Move forward confidently with new traditions knowing these, too, will become familiar. Over time, your pain will ease, and you might even gain new perspective on the gift of that loved one in your life.

Suzy Browning is a Client Service Representative at Prosperity Advisors in the Overland Park office. She is also a professional chaplain.