“One often calms one’s grief by recounting it.”
~ Pierre Corneille
When we are grieving after a loss, it can be especially hard around a holiday or during a celebratory get-together.
These occasions are times when people who are close to one another collectively unite to reconnect and bond in special ways.
When a loved one dies or becomes suddenly absent, we can become shrouded in deep sorrow. It can even be sadness caused by somebody near and dear to us who can’t be with us due to distance or illness. When this happens, the whole festive experience can change in a heartbeat from a happy and joyous gathering to a sad black hole of heartache and misery.
I lost my father five years ago to suicide and was so devastated that I could barely get out of my bed for the first year or two. I could do no more than be physically present at any festivity, for the sake of my children, after he died. And I did it wearing my robe and forcing a fake smile on Christmas and other special occasions. I wouldn’t even allow anyone to take my photo during those days as I knew that I felt and looked like death warmed over.
I wanted no memories to document that horrific time in my life.
Honestly, I felt as if my soul had left my body and that I was only half alive. I was broken in the core of my being—physically, mentally, emotionally and especially spiritually. This was the kind of broken that left me stunned and unable to be fully there for anyone—including, and probably especially, for myself.
Once a little (well actually quite a bit of) time passed and the grief had loosened its noose it had placed around my heart and soul, I was able to become more involved in holidays and other celebrations, but still had melancholy feelings on those days.
This past Thanksgiving, I reached a turning point and finally found a place where I was able to honor my father, as well as the other people that I have loved and lost. I also wanted to remember those still alive who could not be with me on that day.
I adopted a practice that I have wanted to do for years, but have held off on as I thought my three children were too young and might be negatively affected. Now that my kids are older (12-16 years), I finally felt able to set up an empty chair and place setting at my holiday table to pay homage to those who I have loved and lost—especially my father, who loved a big, festive meal with family and friends.
My kids were definitely surprised when I asked if one of them could bring another chair to our dinning room. They were full of questions and wondered who else would be joining us. I made them wait until we were all seated and after we said grace, we went around the table, telling each other what we were each thankful for. I went last and finally told them about the empty seat and why it was so carefully placed there.
I gave them a short history lesson about the Jewish tradition of remembering the Prophet Elijah at Passover Seders by setting an extra place at the table (sometimes it is just a symbolic glass of wine that is placed). I gave them details about how empty seats are oftentimes set for fallen military heroes or active soldiers who are deployed overseas.
And then I explained who was missing in my heart from our table. And oh, how I ached for that extra chair to be filled as I explained the empty seat.
My eyes welled with tears as I spoke of my love for my father and how I longed for his presence at our table. I told them about my grandparents, who they never had the privilege of knowing. I talked about the friends who couldn’t be with us that night.
And then magic began to happen!
A lively conversation started, with everyone mindfully engaged about the symbolism of that one simple chair that we had squeezed in around our small round table. That extra place setting caused us to sit closer to one another in more ways than one that evening.
My children and husband started sharing who they missed and who they wished could have joined us that evening. We discussed the friends and family members who we were missing and had hoped could have been joining us for dinner that night. We even discussed our thoughts on transformation and what happens to people who have left their lives on earth.
During our meal, we had one of the best, if not the best, dinner conversations that we have ever had as a family.
And were my lovely children traumatized? No. In fact one of them suggested that we make the empty chair a tradition for every special occasion that we wish someone who was absent could come to. Leave it to the wise heart of a child to comfort my silly and vulnerable adult fears.
I believe that I became a transformed ‘holiday person’ that day. I am someone who has always grumbled at holidays in the past due to bad memories from my past or missing the people who couldn’t join us, but this night was the first joyous holiday that I could remember in a long while. And it was made possible by my willingness to take a leap of faith and set that empty place at our table.
It is interesting to me how we can console ourselves by layering the good memories over the bad ones. At least for me, when the good memories that I make today, start adding up enough, the bad ones just seem to slip away, buried under the good ones. And, if you’re like me, you might just finally feel a little bit consoled and be able to smile and laugh once again through a simple gesture like an empty chair.
“And when you’re consoled (everyone is eventually consoled), you’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend. You’ll feel like laughing with me. And you’ll open your windows sometimes just for the fun of it And your friends will be amazed to see you laughing while you’re looking up at the sky. Then you’ll tell them, ‘Yes, it’s the stars. They always make me laugh!”
~ Antoine Saint-Exupery
If after a loss, you are ready to celebrate even reluctantly, then I recommend this tradition of the extra seat to you. Plan ahead to see if you are in the right mindset to do this. And if you have children, I believe that it is highly unlikely that they will be traumatized, no matter what their age.
And, lastly, try not to worry about what others may think! You may be surprised by their positive reaction.
Adding an empty seat to your table may sound like such a simple and mindful gesture, but in all honesty, I think it has permanently changed my own view of the holidays.
That one chair affected me in profound and powerful ways; I am not dreading Christmas or my father’s birthday this year nearly as much as I have in the past.
Call me crazy, but I felt as if my father’s presence was there that night at my table, as we spoke of the good times we had with him.
And I believe that he will be there again the next time I set a place for him at my table.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo supplied by Laura Kutney