The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table: Getting Through Christmas After a Loss

By: Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD, Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC, and Angela Escobar, MA, BCC

“I have felt pain, I have endured hardship, I have suffered loss of loved ones and I have memories I want to forget. However, these things have made me stronger and today I face the world with a smile, because I know things will always get better and those who love me will always be there for me.” -Naz

” Time will pass, Memories will fade, Feelings will change, People will leave, but my heart will never forget.” – Unknown

When our loved one dies, we grieve not only for that individual, but also for the life we used to have, the love that special someone gave us and all the memorable times we spent together. Perhaps there is no time of the year when we’re more aware of the empty space our dear one has left behind than during the holiday season.

Holidays can create feelings of dread and anxiety in those who are bereaved. The clichéd images of family togetherness and the often unrealistic expectations of a season filled with picture-perfect, joyful gatherings can cause tremendous stress for those who are not grieving, let alone for those in the midst of the painful, isolating experience of loss. Holidays by nature are filled with nostalgia and tradition, but in grief, even the happiest memories can hurt. When we’re in the midst of pain, and the rest of the world wants to give thanks and celebrate, we need to find ways to manage our pain and get through the season with a minimum of stress.
If you are the grieving person…

Here are some useful suggestions for coping with the holidays:

Plan ahead. Do you want to be alone or will being with those who love you ease the pain? Really think about it. Sometimes being alone makes the aloneness much too hard to bear. Sometimes being in a crowd is overwhelming. Only you know what is best for you. Talk to key family members and ask them to support you in whichever decision you make.

Have a family meeting.  List all the things you ordinarily do for the holidays (sending greeting cards, decorating the house, stringing outdoor lights, putting up a tree, holiday baking, entertaining business associates, buying something special to wear, going to parties, visiting friends, exchanging gifts, preparing a big meal, etc.) Decide together what’s important to each of you, what you want to do this year, what you can let go of, and what you can do differently. For each task on the list, ask yourself these questions:  Would the holidays be the holidays without doing this? Is this something I really want to do? Do I do it freely, or out of habit or tradition? Is it a one-person job, or can it be a group effort? Who’s responsible for getting it done? Do I really like doing it?

Do some things differently this year. For some people, doing the usual traditions and celebrations makes the loved one’s absence all the more painful. Think about whether doing things a bit differently or going to a different place would be helpful. Trying to recreate the past may remind you all the more that your loved one is missing. This year, try celebrating the holidays in a totally different way. Nothing is the same as it used to be anyway. Go to a restaurant. Visit relatives or friends. Travel somewhere you’ve never gone before. If you decide to put up a tree, put it in a different location and make or buy different decorations for it. Hang a stocking in your loved one’s memory, and ask each family member to express their thoughts and feelings by writing a note to, from or about your loved one, and place the notes in that special stocking for everyone to read. Buy a poinsettia for your home as a living memorial to your loved one for the holiday season.

Do other things more simply. You don’t have to discard all your old traditions forevermore, but you can choose to observe the holidays on a smaller scale this year.

Just do it. We all know that we ought to think positively, eat right, exercise more and get enough rest — but grief by its very nature robs us of the energy we need to do all those good and healthy things. Accept that in spite of what we know, it’s often very hard to do what’s good for us—then do it anyway. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it.

Pay attention to yourself. Take good care of yourself.  Notice what you’re feeling and what it is you need. Feelings demand expression, and when we acknowledge them and let them out, they go away. Feelings that are “stuffed” don’t go anywhere; they just fester and get worse. If you need help from others, don’t expect them to read your mind. It’s okay to ask for what you need. Besides, doing a favor for you during the holidays may make them feel better, too. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and with others as well. Discipline yourself to get enough sleep, to eat right, and to follow your normal routines – especially if you don’t feel like it. Eat nourishing, healthy meals, and if you’ve lost your appetite, eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day.You’ll be better able to make good decisions about what makes sense for you to do over the holiday season. Get some daily exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block. Avoid drinking alcohol, which intensifies depression and disrupts normal sleep. Build time in your day to relax, even if you’re having trouble sleeping.

Expect to feel some pain. Plan on feeling sad at certain moments throughout the season, and let the feelings come. Experience the pain and tears, deal with them, then let them go. Have faith that you’ll get through this and that you will survive.

Seek support from others. Grieving is hard work, and it shouldn’t be done alone. You need to share your experience with someone who understands the pain of your loss. If your spouse, relative or friend cannot be the source of that support, you can find it elsewhere.  Contact your local library, hospice, church or synagogue and ask what bereavement support services are available in your community.  Look for programs aimed at helping you cope with the holidays.  If yours is the usual gathering place, think about whether you want to do it this year. Some people like getting lost in the details of planning and managing a dinner for twelve. But if you are one of those who finds it just too hard to make a party when in mourning, know that it’s okay to be “selfish” in times like these and to beg off. People who love you will understand. Those who don’t aren’t worth worrying about. At the very least, ask for help and accept all offers to spread the responsibilities around.

Give something of yourself to others. As alone as you may feel in your grief, one of the most healing things you can do for yourself is to be with other people, especially during the holidays. Caring for and giving to others will nourish and sustain you, and help you to feel better about yourself. If you can bring yourself to do so, visit someone in a nursing home, or volunteer your time at your church,  synagogue or animal shelter. Do whatever you can, and let it be enough.

Allow yourself the right to grieve. American culture has a tough time with death. For some reason, there is pressure to get on with life within a year after a loss. That expectation is unrealistic and unfair. Most people take three to five years to fully accept the loss of someone they loved. If someone dear to you died during this past year, remind yourself that it’s normal and healthy to want to bow out of some of the events of the winter holidays that emphasize family and togetherness when you are feeling alone in a new and painful way.

Give people permission to share stories. Many people have the idea that the best way to help someone in grief is to avoid talking about the person who has passed. Most of the time, they are mistaken. When we stop talking about someone is when they are really lost to the family. Let people know that as hard as it is that the person is no longer with us, it’s important to remember the good times, to laugh about funny things they did or said, and to acknowledge that he or she is missed.

If you are a family member or friend of someone who is grieving:

Allow the person the right to grieve. Everyone does it differently. Some people want to withdraw from the world and work through their sadness alone. At the other end of the spectrum are those who manage by carrying on as usual and tempering the pain through the distraction of people and parties. Carefully consider what your loved one needs, not what you would do in the situation.

Take care. If you notice that your family member or friend isn’t eating, getting enough sleep, or functioning well at home and work, don’t ignore it. These are signs that the person is possibly getting clinically depressed. Invite the person to a meal. Talk to her about the importance of maintaining routines. If her inability to take care of herself is prolonged, do what you can to get her to a counselor.

Plan ahead. Ask the person in mourning what he wants to have happen at family events. How would he like to acknowledge the loss and at the same time keep the holiday going for everyone? Some families literally set an empty place at the table and take a moment to share anecdotes about the person who has passed away. Others make a toast to the memories. Still others offer a prayer. Talk together about what will feel best for everyone involved.

Offer help. If the grieving person is the one who usually hosts family gatherings, see if someone else can offer to do it this year. If she wants to keep up the tradition, get as many family members as possible to help with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, and whatever else needs to be done.

Talk to the grieving person about the loss. Listen without judgment. Resist giving advice. Just be there. Understand that grief comes and goes in intensity and frequency for quite awhile. It is by talking and listening that we all integrate sadness and gradually move on.

Try out a new activity that was never shared by the person who is gone. It’s helpful to do some things that aren’t shadowed by the fact that the last time we did them, the deceased person shared it. If people like the new ideas, they can become part of the family tradition. Or not. Leave that decision for next year.

Time does indeed heal most things. But everyone has his or her own sense of timing. If this is your first holiday season since the loss of a loved one, give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel and do what you need to do to get through it. Find ways to honor the memory of your loved one and to accept the support and care of those who love you.

If you are a friend or family member of someone who is grieving, give them support, love, and concrete assistance. By talking about their loved one and by listening to their stories and feelings, you help reassure them that the sadness may fade but our relationships with people we love never really end.



Sources & Credits:

The Awesome Paintings-

The Empty Chair by Dena Lowery

The Empty Chair by Diane Clancy

This entry was posted in Anger & Resentment, Anxiety & Worry, Depression, Life, Mental Health, Panic/Anxiety Attacks, Personal Growth and Development, Psychology-General, Relationships, Self-Help, Society, Spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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