The Empty Chair – Facing Loss During the Holiday Season

The holidays. The season of joy and togetherness. The season of laughter and time spent with loved ones. The season of joy. But what if you are facing an empty chair at the holiday table? What if for you there is one less gift to buy?

For all its pleasures, the festive season can feel like salt on an open wound for those who are grieving. It may be that you are facing your first holiday without your loved one. Or perhaps it has been many seasons since you said goodbye and you are now confronted with a world that seems to have moved on. So how do you face the season of joy in the midst of such sadness? How do you celebrate togetherness while grieving for the one who isn’t there? How can the season of miracles coexist with the perpetuity of mourning?

Honor Your Feelings

The fact is, there is no instruction manual for grief. Grieving is a messy, dirty, and unpredictable process. It strikes without warning and often without mercy. It seeks to steal joy. It feeds on guilt masking itself as love. But how much you love your dear one is not measured by how hard you grieve for them. You are not honoring your loved one by resigning yourself to a life of sack=cloth and ashes. You do no service to their memory if you define the loved one only by the loss and not by the life that was lived. It is okay to laugh in this festive season. It is okay to love in this time of togetherness. And it is okay to forget, even if only for a moment, your pain. Forgetting to hurt is not the same as forgetting your loved one.

Even as you grant yourself permission to feel joy, though, remember that it is equally important to let yourself feel despair for the loss you have suffered. Know that the pain will come, often unpredictably and unexpectedly—a disturbing ripple on an otherwise good day or an overwhelming tidal wave on a bad one. This is pain that must not, and indeed cannot, be denied. Allow yourself to feel it. Trust yourself to make it to the other side. Know that there is another side and that the memories which cut now will comfort, if not tomorrow, then the next day, or the day after that.

The bad news is that no, there is no life after grieving because grieving never truly ends. But the good news is that there is life, even in grieving. And that life can still be beautiful. It can still be joyous. It can still be meaningful. It will never be the same, but different does not have to mean desolate.


Put together a songbook or mp3 list of your loved one’s favorite holiday tunes and plan a family sing-along

Seek Support

One of the most painful aspects of mourning is often the feeling of isolation, the sense of being alone and misunderstood in the midst of loss. Relationships between even the closest of families can become strained because, even when families mourn for the same loved one, no two losses are the same because no two relationships are identical. Each is mourning a unique and personal loss, and because of this, each will mourn in his or her own way. Just as there is no predictable path through mourning, so too is there no right or wrong way to grieve.

Support groups and grief counseling can prove invaluable for those learning to live with loss. These resources provide the healthy emotional distance that family often cannot, while at the same time giving a measure of understanding so essential to healing. After all, only those who have lost a child can begin to comprehend the bereaved parent. Only the adult child who has laid both parents to rest can understand the feelings of orphaning when you have said goodbye to your last surviving parent. Only a twin who has learned to live after her sibling’s death can know what it feels like to grieve the one with whom you shared a womb.

Honor Your Loved One

The holiday season can be especially searing for those who are mourning because it can feel as though the whole world has moved on, in joy and togetherness, leaving you to face your loss alone. It can feel as though all the world is complete and happy, while you walk around with a throbbing, gaping, tormenting hole in your heart. It can feel as though your loved one has been forgotten, dismissed, dishonored. Joy and togetherness can seem like an insult and an offense.

But just because you and your loved ones are celebrating the season without the physical presence of your lost one does not mean he or she cannot be a part of the festivities. Find a way to make your loved one a part of your family’s annual traditions. Perhaps there is a particularly beloved movie your loved one watched each holiday season. Make watching it together the family’s annual after-dinner ritual. Maybe your loved one was fond of belting out Christmas carols. Put together a songbook of your loved one’s favorite holiday tunes and enjoy a silly family sing-along. Better still, make honoring the loved one a year-long affair. Each month, collect one personal item or write down one story about your loved one, and then, when the family gathers for the holidays, make sharing those stories and showing those beloved objects an on-going part of the family celebrations. After all, your loved one is always with you. This is just one more way to show that, like the loved one, love and memory are forever.

For more strategies for dealing with loss, please visit

By Terri Beth Miller

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Latest update: December 24, 2016
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