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The Empty Chair

Sadness over the loss of a loved one is always magnified during the holidays. This is especially true for a first Thanksgiving or Christmas. Holidays are synonymous with families gathering. So, if someone you love has died, this holiday may well be a struggle.

Our son Eric died many years ago, just a month before Thanksgiving. Our older son was still healing from the same accident as the holiday arrived, so there was no possibility of travel to be with extended family. We would be at home together. It was a quiet morning on Thanksgiving Day as the meal was prepared. Then early that afternoon, we sat down to eat – just the three of us, at a table for four. There was his chair. Eric’s chair. His place was as empty as our hearts were filled with grief.

If you will be grieving over these holidays, let me offer some guidance about how to handle this season intentionally and thoughtfully.

Grieve early You will need to mourn going into the holidays. The pain will not subside without it. In fact, it will become even more intense. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving or Christmas to arrive and be swept away with your grief. Be open to how you feel as the season approaches.

Mourn fully as each wave of grief comes over you. Holiday grief denied maximizes the likelihood of post-holiday depression. Give your grief a voice. Cry it out. Talk it out. Write it out (if you journal, and I encourage it.)

Plan aheadDo as few obligatory engagements as possible. Schedule your holidays in ways that will work for you. Keep the traditions that you like, drop those you don’t, and add any new ones that may be good for you now. This year needs to be your holiday. This one needs to be about you. Design it your way without a hint of guilt.

Take excellent care of yourselfboth now and throughout the holiday season. Do and attend what you want to do and attend, and do not do or attend what you do not want to do or attend.

Working through all the emotions of these first holidays takes so much energy, so engage in whatever recharges and replenishes you. Make time for yourself. Get rest.

Be near to those you love – Plan to surround yourself through the holidays with those who are good for you and enrich you. Be with the people who give you life and energy. Graciously avoid those who don’t.

Identify the one or two special people in your inner circle with whom you can be radically open. Let them know you may need a chat or two with them over the holidays. Then, whenever you need to, call them and pour out your heart.  Do not think for a moment you are burdening them. You are not. You are honoring them by inviting them into the inner sanctuary of your heart.

Tell your family and friends what you need Having decided that this year it’s alright for it to be about you, then communicate clearly to those closest to you what you need. Let them know your preferences for the upcoming holidays. Those who love you will appreciate your candor and direction. They do love you and want to know how.

This will, of course, be your family’s first holiday without their parent or grandparent or brother as well. Ask them in advance how they are feeling and if there is anything special they will need as you begin planning.

Share your memories as a family togetherAs you sit around the table for that Thanksgiving dinner, instead of ignoring what everyone is thinking, give it a voice. Remember the good times. Retell the stories. Stories are told and events remembered about someone so dear. Laughter is heard. A tear or two quietly sneak down someone’s cheek. And out of it all – the telling and the remembering – you will have honored his or her memory in a most personal way and worked through a bit more of your grief.

Have realistic expectationsThis won’t be a Currier & Ives holiday. It will be different. It will be tough. Anticipate times of deep sadness. Depression is sometimes experienced when expectations that are too high collide with reality. If this is your first year without someone you dearly loved, know that it will be difficult. Don’t set your bar too high and be disappointed. Remember the formula: reality divided by expectations equals happiness. Keep your expectations realistic.


When I ran marathons, I didn’t set the bar too high. My goal was just to make it through to the finish.  Let that be your goal – to have made it through…  to have made it through your first holiday season, to have honored his life, and to have savored the company of those you dearly love.


Written by Ron Greer, Pastoral Counseling Service
Peachtree Road United Methodist Church