When There’s An Empty Chair At The Table . . .

The Blog That Speaks: When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table . . .

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she said, “I mentioned Mom, and they said nothing.”[1]

I heard feelings of frustration, confusion, and disappointment pour out of her story.

Photo by Casey C from FreeImages

Madison, as I will call her, had longed for, and expected, a shared connection—that is, a shared reality, but instead, her longing remained unfulfilled as she was greeted by the coldness of disconnection, producing feelings of loneliness and fueling her sense of isolation.

Her story could actually occur in any family celebrating any holiday after a death. Hers revolved around a family Christmas celebration, the first after her mother’s death. She, her father, her siblings, and their families had gathered in the parents’ home just as they had done year after year to be with one another during “the most wonderful time of the year,” or so it was commonly billed.

Sure, she knew it would be different, even hard, but she was unprepared for what greeted her that Christmas. Mom was absent, but she was also present . . . In every nook and cranny . . . In every spot in the house . . . In each place she looked, Madison saw her mother. Her china. Her collectibles. Her home décor. The sofa she selected. The chair that was hers. The spices in her cupboards. Her favorite coffee mug. Family photos displayed by a handy piece of Scotch tape. Even her holiday recipes were in her handwriting. As Madison saw item after item, they seemed to emanate her mother.

Being in the parents’ house made it appear as if her mother was alive again . . . but not. It gave the impression that the lines between death and life were blurred, leaving Madison in a state of bewilderment.

Never before had these objects in the house meant so much to this grieving storyteller . . . including those she had disregarded and some she had despised (like those plaques with the cheesy clichés). The all-pervasiveness of the objects calling attention to her mother was overwhelming for Madison, making it seem that her mom was not dead but alive. It seemed that at any moment this bereaved daughter would see her mother standing by the stove making more Christmas sweets or whipping up a favorite family recipe or walking through the dining room. But in the light of the acute sense of her mother’s presence, her absence also became more palpable. Like a splotch of black on a white canvas, so was her mom’s absence, becoming more conspicuous on a canvas of objects that exuded her presence.

Yet, when she mentioned Mom, the members of her family only stared, saying nothing. This was baffling to Madison. How could one not be propelled to speak of Mom when she is everywhere but not? It seemed impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Mom’s chair was empty at the table this Christmas.

As the holidays quickly approach, many, like Madison, find it confusing on how to manage them after the death of a family member.

Are we to forge ahead, upholding every aspect of the holiday’s traditions while attempting to convince ourselves, “He wouldn’t want us to be sad” or “She would want us to celebrate per usual”? After all, isn’t that what culture expects? But it isn’t like we can simply wish things back to normal. Besides, business as usual seems to disrespect the person who died and our love for him/her. So then, how are we to navigate the holidays when a person’s absence is obvious?

These are the types of concerns that surface when I participate in facilitating a virtual workshop on managing the holidays for mourners. Underneath these concerns are mourners’ attempts to find meaning during the holidays now that there is an empty chair at the table. It is natural to wonder about finding meaning in a holiday when it loses its luster after a person has died. The holidays may seem empty and shallow in contrast to the depths of the pain of the loss, causing mourners to experience an internal emotional incongruency to the giddiness and temporary happiness of the holidays. A person has died. A chair is empty at the table. Life as they know it has changed, which indicates that the holidays have also changed.

In the desire to find meaning in the holidays and gain a perspective, mourners wrestle with the disparity that exists between the customary high energy of the holidays and the lethargy of grief. The internal sluggishness due to grief blots out the inflated expectations of fun, laughter, and magic that ordinarily accompany the holidays. If time travel were possible, many would consider it a valid alternative to the holiday hoopla. It would allow mourners to move ahead in time to mid-January, a season perhaps more suitable to their current emotional state . . . the winter blues. But since time travel is not yet possible, some may be tempted to think hibernation is a feasible option.

Such thoughts and feelings of dread are common, but if we are to move towards finding meaning in the holidays, it calls for us to pause and step back to gain a perspective. Finding meaning implies taking a broader view through re-evaluation and reflection, which moves at a slow, unhurried pace unlike the busyness of the holidays. It is pausing to reconsider the why of the holidays and our family traditions. It asks:

  • “What is important and why?”
  • “What is the meaning of this holiday and the reason for these traditions, such as lighting these candles and singing these songs?”
  • “Why are we gathering together?”
  • “Who will be gathering together?”
  • “What will we be doing?”

Many mourners mention the importance of acknowledging the reality of the death by embracing the pain of the loss[2] in order to find meaning in the holidays.

Acknowledging the reality of the death may be an overwhelming experience, as described by Madison, and may create an impulse to run and hide, either literally or figuratively. This is when mourners seek courage to embrace the pain of the loss by becoming present to their grief, crying if they desire. Embracing is not the same as clinging to the pain but rather is similar to befriending it. Embracing the pain of the loss occurs by feeling the feelings such as naming them and sitting with them for a few moments, empathizing with the experiences of grief.

Finding meaning for many mourners involves remembering the person who died, such as speaking his/her name or telling stories during the holidays.

Walking down memory lane through the telling of stories or looking at pictures is a way in which mourners go backwards so that they may move forward in their grief journey. Whether the stories produce laughter or generate tears, both are necessary to integrate the loss into a mourner’s life and to find meaning during the holidays.

Finding meaning for many mourners also includes reflecting on what roles to fill during the holidays, including those that are left vacant by the person who died.

Determining what roles to fill necessitates planning ahead, such as deciding which traditions will remain and who will do them, and which ones will be completely discarded. In this type of re-evaluating, some mourners decide to forego a family tradition for a year, or they jettison it all together and start a new one. Mourners underscore their freedom to pick and choose in order to determine what is most meaningful to them while accepting the lethargy that grief brings.

Many mourners additionally speak of the significance of supportive friends and family as they try to discover meaning during the holidays.

Mourners underline the need for friends and family to provide understanding for their choices, such as not sending holiday cards; not decorating; not preparing the usual holiday feast; or eating from disposable plates. A mourner particularly appreciates friends and family who support his/her decision to drive to an event alone so that he/she may depart when the mourner deems it is necessary, be that after ten minutes or sixty.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, being supportive of mourners by joining alongside them in their losses is how Christians may participate in the kenotic ministry of Christ.

This can be challenging when we recognize that, similar to the culture at large, the Christian can equally romanticize Christmas by being mesmerized by the twinkling bright lights, the glowing angels, and the sanitized decorative nativity scenes; thus, it is tempting when encountering a mourner to select from our bag of Christianese such phrases as “She is in a better place so be happy for her. Don’t be sad!” “God has another angel in heaven.” “He gets to celebrate Christmas in heaven!” Unfortunately, these phrases convey how we are mirroring our mourning-avoidant culture by Christianizing quick-fix responses rather than participating in Christ’s ministry. Amidst our celebrations of Christmas with the singing angels and the bright shining stars, it is also crucial to not overlook the broader theological picture of Christmas: Jesus’s coming to earth is an act of ministry of entering into our death (our void) and now we are invited to participate in that ministry.

Jesus Christ’s ministry to the world involves acknowledging the reality of our death and embracing the pain of our death, similar to a mourner who is seeking for meaning amidst the holidays. The triune God recognized humanity’s helplessness to overcome death; thus, because it is the very nature of God to empty God’s self— that is, be a minister— and to enter into the other’s death (impossibilities, nothingness, void), God entered into humanity’s death by becoming human and dying. As Andrew Root emphasizes,

“The cross is not a unique outlier to God’s own act and being but rather its very core.”[3]

In other words, Jesus entered into the pain of the empty chair at the table through his own birth and death.

If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are invited to participate in this ministry of Christ in the presence and the power of the Spirit by entering into the others’ impossibilities, their deaths. As Christ entered into our death, we too are invited to participate in his ministry by acknowledging with mourners the reality of the death of a person and sitting with them in the pain of their loss. That is, we mirror Christ by emptying ourselves. Root writes,

“To be a minister is to be kenotic, self-emptying . . . If it is not kenotic, then ministry is disconnected from the divine being and is something other than ministry.”[4]

As the Apostle Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-8:

You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who . . . [because][5] he existed in the form of God 
	did not regard equality with God 
	as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself 
	by taking on the form of a slave, 
	by looking like other men, 
	and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself, 
	by becoming obedient to the point of death 
	—even death on a cross! 

Thus, this holiday season when we hear of an empty chair at the other’s table . . .

  • May we sit with the mourner in his/her pain of the loss, emptying ourselves by dying to our desire to quickly fix the other’s pain.
  • May we accept that there is no reward for speed, resisting any attempts to rush in and hurry the person in his/her grief journey.
  • May we perceive this as sacred space for this is where the Spirit is moving to bring consolation and healing into which we are invited to join.

As a Christian, this is an integral part of the meaning of Christmas.

ATTENTION: If you have experienced a death of a person and would like to join a virtual, non-religious, 10-week support group that is open to any mourner no matter of his/her location, you may inquire or register by contacting: CGES@seasonshospice.org OR 507-285-1930. It will meet: Tuesdays, 6:00-7:30 PM CST, January 11-March 15. The cost is free, except for the purchase of Alan Wolfelt’s Understanding Your Grief, 2nd edition. It is sponsored by Seasons Hospice Bereavement Center in Rochester, MN, and the group will be guided by two trained co-facilitators who will help to provide a safe environment for individuals to explore their grief experiences.

[1] This story was used by permission, but some details are changed to protect the identity of those involved.

[2] I am drawing from Alan Wolfelt’s six needs of mourning as found in Understanding Your Grief. These six needs are:acknowledge the reality of the death; embrace the pain of the loss; remember the person who died; develop a new identity; search for meaning; and let others help you—now and always.

[3] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.

[4] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 166.

[5] I am following the lead of some NT scholars translate this as “because” rather than “although” so that it carries a sense that a characteristic of God is to empty God’s self. See Root, Faith Formation in a Secular, 163.