As I looked around the Thanksgiving table last week and reviewed my Christmas shopping list, I noticed absences. An aunt and grandmother who have passed away. Additionally, my wife’s grandfather ended his long battle with Alzheimers this fall. Our family is not alone with an empty chair at our holiday meals. Over this past year, other families have shared about their loss with us — some loss as recent as this past week.
Friends who have an empty high chair and will not hear the grunts and giggles of a newborn. Friends and family for whom children are not possible. For them, the holiday chair remains empty and silent each year. Friends who have lost loved ones unexpectedly, such as a parent, sibling, grandparent, or friend. This holiday meal looks different than expected due to the cancer, car accident, or other tragedy. For others, the empty holiday chair was a looming reality due to old age or worsening health. But, the stinging and sour reality of loss feels no less real.
For others, the empty holiday chair is not a physical loss of a loved one but a relational one. Their loved one is still physically alive but emotionally and physically absent. There was a painful break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend. A child, sibling, or spouse who has separated themselves from those still at the table. Or, the empty chair may be a reminder of the painful divorce that is now finalized.
The holidays reveal not only what we have but often more painfully who we have lost.
Let me share two reminders as we gather around the holiday table this year.
1. Share your loss and pain with those around the table.
It’s okay to acknowledge the pain and heartache. It’s okay to shed tears when we miss hearing that familiar laugh or get a passing whiff of their cologne or perfume. There are phone calls we will not receive, pranks that will not be pulled, and other notable absences during the holiday season. In those moments, tell the people around you what you miss about that loved one. For many, the absence of a loved one means new responsibilities and traditions. These transitions can bring difficult realizations and conversations about what life looks like now without a loved one. This will take some time to figure out. Whatever the occasion is that brings up this pain, share your loss and pain with those around you. They are gathered around you because they care about you. Let them into the pain and sorrow. As one professor has told me, “There is healing in the telling.”
If you know someone around the holiday table has an empty chair this year, let me encourage you to acknowledge their loss. This doesn’t need to be a formal acknowledgement or announcement before eating. Rather, it may simply be leaning over and saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss this year. I wish your (dad, sister, grandparent, child, etc.) could be here with us.” Look them in the eye and give them a hug or a gentle squeeze of the hand. You can’t fix their pain or replace their loss. You can, however, remind them that love remains and they are not alone.
2. Savor the presence of those around the table.
For some friends and family, they recognize that their time with a loved one is coming to a close. The cancer is spreading and the diagnosis is dim with little to no hope of remission. This is likely their last Thanksgiving or holiday meal with a loved one. For them, they want the world to slow down so that they can savor each moment, each glance, each smell, each hug with their loved one.
We can all learn that we should savor each moment, each meal, because we are not guaranteed another meal. God has given to us that very plate, place, and the person next to and across from us as avenues of thanksgiving and enjoyment for His glory. We are not given tomorrow. He has sustained our life and those around us. God has sustained our life for a purpose, despite whatever pain and difficulty has come to us. We are invited to savor the presence of those around us as we share a holiday meal.
The holiday meal is likely the most emotional meal one will eat all year. The holiday meal is a place of great joy and sorrow. The holiday meal is a time and place that we remember those we have lost and rejoice with those who remain with us.