Relationships

The Empty Chairs at the Table

How do we celebrate the holidays when the ones we love are gone?

The holidays will never be the same again.

Top Ten lists are great. When I see a "10 Easy Ways to ..." article, I always click on it, because I want easy. I want tried and true. I want someone to tell me how to do something with guaranteed results.

I wish there was a "10 Easy Ways to Survive the First Holiday Without the One You Love" link I could click on this holiday season. To be honest, I'd settle for 5 ways.

As my family prepares for the upcoming holidays this year, there will be two empty chairs around our table. Tears are streaming down my face as I type this, acknowledging what I wish wasn't true — that my nephew and my mother will not be here. My nephew passed away in January, and my mother in August. They are gone, and never is loss more profoundly felt than around the first holiday without them.

Not celebrating the holidays this year isn't a possibility for us. We still have children at home and can't tell them that the holidays are canceled because our hearts are too full of sorrow. I know they're counting on us for the familiar festivities — the decorating, the holiday meals and gifts, all things that tell them that life goes on.

Even though our lives are now unalterably different. And frankly, I don't know which approach to take this holiday season:

Do we still have a place setting for the ones we've lost?

Do we follow tips in magazines and construct a Memory Tree, strung with pictures of the ones no longer here?

Do we forge ahead and do something so distractedly different, like go on vacation instead of being home?

Do we fill our holiday days with activity and preparation, even when the silence of our loss roars in our hearts?

How do we celebrate the holidays when the ones we love are gone?

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When you prepare the stuffing with raisins because your grandmother liked the sweetness of it, or cook the gravy until it's silky smooth because your father-in-law wouldn't accept it any other way, it all triggers memories of how much you miss the ones who are no longer here. What was once familiar now seems foreign, and we have no idea how to plow through.

Bereavement is especially compounded during the holidays, and this first season of loss is one of the most difficult in the grieving process. As we all know, this time smacks of television and radio commercials showing families — complete and all accounted for — gathering for joyful celebrations. There are no commercials showing the empty chair at the table.

It just feels wrong to celebrate, as if you're ignoring their absence. It also feels wrong to dwell on their loss, especially when you have children at home. What you want is for the ones you love to be around you.

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After my nephew's death in January, I began to see a grief counselor. Last week, I asked her for advice on how to navigate the coming holiday season. I told her I wanted to avoid the whole thing altogether, as the sorrow has just knocked the wind out of me.

She put into words what I couldn't, explaining that the loss I felt, besides the obvious grief, was also a break in a pattern. She noted how the holidays make glaring the reality and permanency of the losses I've experienced. It's not limbo anymore — it's right there in the empty chairs. It tells me they are gone, and won't be coming back.

"You can't go around this. You'll have to face it head on. You'll have crushing moments, but you'll have memories, too. You can push it all away for now," she said, "but it will come back again until you live through it. The manner in which you spend the holidays won't change the ache of loss."

I'm still not sure how we're going to handle the next few weeks. All I know is that we have to bravely make our way through it all without stopping the tears or the laughter in those wonderful memories.

We will survive this first season without them, feeling so very fortunate to have loved them so much.

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