Coping With the Empty Chair
Nov 5, 2015
Lev’s empty chair illustrated the family’s differences as we worked our way through grief. When friends came to call after they learned of his death, my children clenched their fists as other people unknowingly sat in their dad’s chair. When our family of nine was alone in the library, they squeezed as two family groups into the pair of flanking couches, leaving Lev’s chair empty. I, on the other hand, could not stand the empty chairs.
There was the empty chair opposite mine in the library, where each morning we drank coffee and read the newspaper together; each evening, where we watched the news before dinner. There was the empty chair across from me in the breakfast room; another, at the head of the long dining room table. There was the big armchair in the living room, his chair since 1971.
And at no time was the empty chair so painfully obvious than when the family gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Someone was missing! One of the big surprises for all of us was that we did not simply experience a single, one-time loss when Lev died. On every special day we experienced a sense of loss again.
I thought that the empty chair was my personal metaphor for grief. I was surprised, then, a year ago to see a link to an article entitled “The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table” on the Baylor University Facebook page. In an interview, Dr. Helen Harris, grief specialist at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, offered suggestions to friends and family of those who were facing their first holidays without a loved one. That’s when I began to understand that what I thought was our family’s unique response to loss is, in fact, a universal reaction.
In May I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Harris, and most of my subsequent blogs on grief incorporate what I learned from her. Two in particular focus on these special days that are so difficult for widows: “Bereavement: ‘I’ve Been Robbed!’”, written after my grandson’s graduation from law school, and “Those Sinkholes Called Holidays”, written on July 3.
I have also rediscovered the vast Twitter community of those who have lost loved ones. Conduct a search of #widow #grief and you’ll find hundreds, maybe thousands, of voices out there. Some Twitterers (Tweeters?) have thousands of followers, and they regularly tweet links to blogs and news articles by and for widows. Some are trite, some are commercial (which I find creepy), but many pass on helpful information and advice. During this Holiday season Soaring Spirits is tweeting daily helpful hints for those who grieve. No matter how unique your circumstances may seem, there are people out there who are dealing with similar issues—those who are dealing with the loss of spouse, parents, siblings, children; with suicide, war casualties, cancer. You find them with a hashtag.
Author and Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis believed that joy included components of both memory and anticipation. So remember the joyful times, but don’t linger there. Focus on good times with family and friends during the next two months. Anticipate. Participate. Prepare your home for company. Cook for friends. Shop for your loved ones. Send cards to friends scattered across the country. Be thankful—for all the good memories and for all that is to come. And watch out for sinkholes.
Feedback: How did you cope with the empty chair after a significant loss?