The Empty Place Setting-Dealing with Loss During the Holidays
To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.
~ Johannes A. Gaertner ~
The table is set, but something is missing. He is missing; my beautiful son Stephen. Each year, I feel the same sense of melancholy as the holidays approach. It sits gently beneath the surface of my smile, and coexists with the smells of the season wafting from the kitchen.
Family gatherings and special occasions shine a bright light on the new reality of the bereaved. They illuminate that empty place setting at our table.
It becomes painfully apparent when someone asks us to all scrunch together for a family picture. Because, no matter how bright my smile, I can’t help but feel this is not right; we are taking this picture without someone very important.
It hurts, and that is the simple stark truth of loss. No matter how many years pass, his absence becomes no less profound. And the holidays magnify his absence. At moments it is overwhelming, and my sadness feels as deep as the ocean.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a happy life. We do; we have moments of bliss, and belly laughs and complete joy. We are surrounded by beautiful people, and multitudes of blessings. As a family, we’ve worked hard to get here, to be able to live with the quiet grief, and make peace with the balance of happy and sad that is our daily walk.
But there it is…the chair where he should be sitting; the empty place at our table of bounty, and it can’t be changed.
What is the answer? How do you get through? Here’s how our family decided to cope with the empty place setting:
- The Empty Chair: We try to fill the empty chair with someone who needs the measure of love that we have available to give. There is always someone out there who needs some tenderness and care. You need not look very far to find them.
- The Empty Plate: On his empty plate, we heap on a hefty portion of acceptance. This acceptance is for each person sitting at our table and for whatever “broken bits” they bring to our gathering. All are welcome. We also send acceptance out to the world, and to the people who desperately need it. This seems to be in short supply as of late.
- As side dishes, we add:
- Remembrance: We talk about Stephen. We remember the funny stories and his quirky and adorable personality. We laugh about the colossal amounts of food he could consume at his slow and steady pace. We give ourselves the gift of remembrance, to not let the impact of his life stop at the time of his death. He lives on through us, how we choose to live and remember him.
- Gentle Care: Thanksgiving is not only about turkey, football and family. It is also about pressure to have everything just right, managing the once a year family obligations and conversations. An important side dish we avail of each year is gentle care. We take care of ourselves. We try, as best as we can, to take measures to ensure that the day is what we want it to be, not what people expect of us. We surround ourselves with good things, music, people, and moments of solitude. We take care of our hearts.
- Go With the Flow Mentality: Sounds, smells, and tradition can bring up memories and in some cases, pain. Give yourself permission to go with the flow of the day, and move the day in a direction that is easy on your heart. That may mean not cooking the green bean casserole that reminds you so much of him. Or it may mean adding a new tradition to mix things up. Going with the flow means not fighting back the tears if they need to fall from your eyes. We accept that things are not quite the same, and we go wherever that takes us.
And for dessert? Of course, it is Gratitude. And at our house, everyone eats dessert. We take a moment to look around at the people who are sitting at our table and give thanks for their presence in our lives. We close our eyes and give thanks for Stephen and his beautiful life’s ripple, and how it continues to touch others. We give thanks for our broken hearts, and how the trials of life molded us into more open and compassionate human beings. We give thanks for our “broken bits” and the opportunity to walk compassionately with others on their journey.
We give thanks for understanding that true Thanksgiving is being able to find the little things that bless us within the mess.
Sending you and yours love and wishes for an abundance of one little things this Thanksgiving and always…