Holidays and Empty Chairs

The holidays are a time for recognizing our profound fullness, of purposefully dwelling on the abundant overflow we find ourselves in and being grateful for it.

Our houses and our bellies bulge to capacity, and we gleefully overindulge in food and friends and laughter. We fill ourselves to bursting with all the things and the people and the stuff that make life glorious and make the difficulties bearable.

This is a season where we inventory our lives and readily acknowledge all that is good and sweet and right.

It is about celebrating presence.

But not for you.

Not right now.

Though you may indeed have so many reasons to feel fortunate and to give thanks, what this season is now marked by more than anything else—is absence. Surrounded by noise and activity and life, your eyes and your heart can’t help but drift to that quiet space that now remains unoccupied: the cruel vacancy of the empty chair.

You’re not alone, friend. In fact, though they’re supposed to nurture gratitude and deposit peace within us, the holidays have a way of magnifying loss; of in the middle of all the celebration and thanksgiving, reminding us of our incompleteness, our lack, our mourning.

The empty chair is different for everyone, though it is equally intrusive.

For some it is a place of a vigil; the persistent hope of a prodigal returning, of a severed tie to soon be repaired, of a long overdue reunion to come. It is a place of painful but patient waiting for what is unlikely, yet still possible.

For some the chair is a memorial; the stark reminder of what was and no longer is, of that which never will be again. It is a household headstone where we eulogize and grieve and remember,; a face we squint to see, a hand we stretch to hold, a voice we strain to hear.

For some it is a fresh wound; the painful fallout of a brutal battle that we chose or had thrust upon us, one whose aftermath has yielded silence. It is a place of sometimes necessary but still excruciating separation.

This may be the first time the chair has been empty for you, or you may have grown quite accustomed to the subtraction. Either way it hurts like hell, and I wanted you to know that someone sees you and understands.

This would usually be the time when a writer might offer some silver lining goodness to tie everything up in pretty little bow; some closing reminders about how the empty chair is still a blessing because it reminds us that we had something worth grieving over to begin with. It’s the place where he or she would offer some concluding encouragement regarding the lessons the empty chair teaches us, about living in the moment and being thankful for what we have and about growing through suffering.

I’m not going to do that. You’ll learn those lessons and acquire that wisdom and find that healing in your way and in your time—or you won’t. Life is unpredictable and messy that way.

Right now, I just want you to know that I see your waiting, your grief, and your pain, and that I wait and grieve and suffer too. In that way we all sit together in this, gathered around this same incomplete table. 

Maybe that is all we can offer one another: our compassionate presence in this face of this terrible absence.

In this season each of us learns to have fellowship with sadness, to celebrate accompanied by sorrow. This is the paradox of loving and being wounded simultaneously.

May we each make peace with the holidays and the empty chairs.




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50 thoughts on “Holidays and Empty Chairs

  1. I am trans. When I came out to my family, I was largely disowned. The only family I’ve seen since (about 4 years) is my Mom, and an Aunt. I doubt I’ll ever see any of the other family again, so this post really spoke to me. Thank you so much, John. <3

    • I hope they come around one day, Kristine. I can’t imagine the pain you went through just trying to be yourself <3

    • Lost and tossed my birth family yers ago for their bigotry and hate. Now they have joined the Christofascist movement in the US connected to the Cult of T@#$p. You feel pain and loss but trust me when I say you are better off. Cultivate a chosen family and stay strong! #nofeastingwithfascists

    • I’m a 51 trans woman and my family doesn’t bother to call and I just tried a week ago to invite myself to Thanksgiving Dinner, NO. I stay alive Hoping to meet one other person to be MY Family

  2. Pingback: GRIEVING ON SPECIAL DAYS & HOLIDAYS:28 Ways to Remember Your Lost Loved Ones » Penny J Kendall, ACC | Christian Life-Purpose Coach & Mentor

  3. Pingback: GRIEVING ON SPECIAL DAYS & HOLIDAYS:28 Ways to Remember Your Lost Loved Ones » Penny J Kendall, ACC | Christian Life-Purpose Coach & Mentor

  4. I wanted to share this our family is so incredibly blessed to have many happy holidays, and extra special, once in a lifetime events coming up this year and I can’t help but feel the overpowering emptiness that comes with celebrating anything at all without Jeffy. I just told Austin today, I’m really so proud and looking forward to your 18th birthday and your high school graduation in June, but I can’t help but think about all that Jeffy would have added to that day that just isn’t anymore. I think my family is crazy strong and resilient just to get out of bed, breathe all day and go to bed knowing you have to continue over and over to do this without Jeffy. But I can’t help but feel his loss is so huge and so devastating that our family is no longer who we used to be. When we’re together we always talk, laugh and inevitably we talk about him but ironically, the fear of that pain leading up to those occasions without him, is never as painful as we imagine it beforehand. I think partly because we are probably alone when we wonder how we will ever really enjoy a ‘family’ gathering when our family is no longer complete. But then when we are all together I feel like, just the tiniest bit, that pain is eased. Because who else but the rest of Jeffy’s family knows his stories, his strengths (which we miss so now and of course, wish we had cherished more) – like his very talented writings, and yet each of us has our own memories, our own ‘Jeffy’ stories, funny, sad, lots of goofy ones, meaningful, and just so incredibly special. So, where else could we continue to still learn new things about him, or just continue to share our favorite stories over and over. Like he was convinced he could sing exactly like Neil Diamond’s song Hello Again (pretty sure thats title), but he could only sing, “Hello, again, hello”!! And that was the entirety of his talent but it still makes me laugh because he was intensely proud of that! He used to practice in the bathroom mirror for hours, then call me in to listen. I thought he sounded good too, but turns out I’m tone deaf so my opinion may not be as sound. I remember a day about 2 months after he was gone, I felt agitated, restless, and finally put on headphones to an iPod (not even sure whose it used to be) and about 3 songs in was that Neil Diamond song, and I could only listen to Jeffy’s 1st 3 words, but I knew it was Jeffy not Mr. Diamond saying hello that day. My heart felt so glad to hear from him and all agitation drained out of me. So, alone or together, we miss him, but we miss him in a passionate, messy, all out there kinda way. Our family is different, yet exactly the same, without him. We all have yet to hear Jeffy memories we’ve probably never heard yet, and over and over we’ll continue to share the ones we already know. I think its the least we can do to help his young daughter, Vivian, remember things about her Dad that perhaps she is now too young, or too scared to think about. As always, we miss ‘Our Jeffy’
    (my younger brother committed suicide last July 2015)

  5. The chair had too many strings attached. Their emptiness is not my emptiness. They believe they have lost a possession, a brick in the façade. I am coming to terms with the lifetime of loss I have suffered in some sort of duty- and guilt- and shame-addled trance, and am working to recover whatever is still within my reach. The empty chair feels like a trap.

  6. This is our first holiday season without my Dad, and his birthday is Christmas. I feel so much dread over this season. Thank you for this.

  7. Once someone leaves your life, a piece of you is gone forever. Life is never quite the same. Holidays are never quite the same. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy, there just isn’t the same joy as there was when they were there. There is nothing one can say to change that fact but it helps to know others recognize it. Your words are very comforting, John.

  8. Thank you. I have an adult child spending a second year of holidays incarcerated. My heart is broken yet filled with the love and fellowship that surrounds and envelopes me.

    • My husband is also incarcerated. I lost evening when I lost him. I have working hard to rebuild. This year I am celebrating the holidays back in a home full of people I love. It’s no longer just my daughter and I. My house is full with her fiance, and his brother. My first grandbaby is on the way. And finally my hubbies daughter is able to be with us often and with her comes her wonderful fiance. My life is full and rich again. This year decorating the tree is an occasion again. It has been something my daughter and I have done simply out of tradition. And that empty chair is so much heavier than ever before. It seems the higher the highs the heavier his absence.

      I understand and know the struggle of life with an incarcerated loved one.

  9. Love most of what is written here. The only part that causes me to pause is where you twice sat you see me in my grief. I believe you can accurately say you understand it, but saying you see me ? Not only doesn’t it comfort me it drives the point home. No. You do not see me or have any idea how many empty chairs surround me or why. It felt patronizing. But your spot on in reminding all of us, we are not special or unique in our grieving. That alone kills you he pity party and makes the article worth reading. Best of luck as you embrace life with an empty seat at the table.

  10. Thank you for this article. I am missing my 14 year old daughter and my husband. It has been 35 years since my daughter passed (still not over it, just leaned to live with it. I lost my husband 9 years ago…Learned to live with it. Losing them will hurt forever. I am so blessed with my other daughter, son and daughter-in-law. They help the hurt.

  11. Grief rapidly empties holidays like a carved pumpkin. When my husband died 5 years ago, he took holidays with him. And our small family splintered. I assume it was he that held it together. So, I have simply bowed out of holidays, clumsily. I console myself with memories of warm childhood holidays and the traditions we created with children and dogs and friends. It was good. The memories warm me. Playing with fire is dangerous. Sometimes I realize holidays are artificial, shallow, corny, mercenary times of the year. And I am angry, bitter, sorrowful. It doesn’t help that there is a club.

  12. This will be the 16th year of my husband not being here…..died at age 50.. somewhat unexpectedly. Married 29 yrs, had been part of each others lives since 1st grade. I wish the calender would go from Oct. 31st to Jan. 1st….no matter how many friends/family one has, they r not the same kind of relationship. Holidays exploit/magnify everything I don’t have. I make great effort not 2 rain on others’ celebrations.

  13. Thank you. Beautiful, and so true: “… we can offer one another: our compassionate presence in this face of this terrible absence.”

    An old Celtic proverb: Joy shared is doubled; grief told, cut in half. With all that’s going on from the planetary level to our holiday tables (when we’re grateful to have food on a table), we come together spiritually in sorrow for our losses in the personal spaces of our relationships.

    We rely on more than bread alone, but we feed those we can. And we choose to feed ourselves spiritually.

    Also we invite the Holy Spirit’s compassion to comfort humanity (usually, if we’re American, we don’t yet know them personally) in migration from political horror, economic collapse and climate disruption, in trauma from war and habitat destruction, on and on the list could go. The promise of Jesus was never a suffering-free life on earth, instead that we’d be connected in relationship with infinite Love as we do our best to love ourselves and love one another as God’s image-bearers. Sounds simple, never easy, a real hero’s journey of spiritual growth for everyone without exception who freely chooses it.

    Your words, John, excellently help people embrace the cosmological hugeness of Christ’s solace for all that we have to bear, entering with us into our suffering, providing relief. When we breathe easier in the promised inner peace, reconciled spiritually by the supernatural work of cruciform love, we find our paradox of this and every Merry Christmas.

    Not everybody would choose the same words I’ve used to describe what’s spiritually available, there’s some culturally and politically motivated ecclesiastic history that drags things sideways, but I know God gently meets — in the unseen yet tangibly felt way — anyone who honestly seeks the freely available loving comfort.

    Despite a faith background from childhood, as an adult I desperately needed to meet the gentle God who looks like Jesus on the cross, caring for all of humanity, gifting supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to make it through what’s turning out to be many decades of life, many losses, many laughs (often at myself).

    To meet those needs, paradoxically the gentle God also dispensed the spiritual strength of authority to stand against accusatory uncaring evil (call the bad mojo what you will, I don’t correct Jesus’s theology and practices about unfriendly invisible forces as biblically described). The friendly God overcomes, and is for us, not against us.

    Anybody preaching a wrathful, shaming, fear-inducing Deity isn’t telling the truth about God’s love for humanity. (Oh, the harm that flawed theology has done in emotionally wounding family systems for generations. Oh, the unresolved woundedness that bubbles forth in aggression at holiday dinner tables among those seated there. Oh, the better ideas about God we could embrace to heal the brokenhearted.)

    What I mainly want for Christmas — wrap a ribbon around it — is that we retire the old, damaging ideas and free one another for equal access to our loving God around any table where we find ourselves.

  14. In my home it’s not an empty chair but an empty cradle. It makes the Advent season–waiting for the birth of Jesus–and worship services painful. Even seventeen years later I can’t bear to have any nativity scenes in my home. I was never able to get pregnant again after that child. (And please do not start with the “just adopt” panacea. It’s not that easy.)

  15. Pingback: Holidays and Empty Chairs | Betrayed

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