The Empty Seat at the Table

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

This Thursday my family will spend our first Thanksgiving without my brother Robert, who passed away in January from melanoma. Many other grieving families will face the same specter: the empty seat at the table. So how can we balance the grief we still feel with the feelings of gratitude and joy Thanksgiving invites?

Celebrate the things that bring you joy in your daily life.

Holidays are notorious for making people feel pressured to be happy and have fun while doing unusual amounts of shopping, eating, cleaning, cooking, and socializing. Give yourself permission to step off the holiday rat wheel and you’ll have space to honor your loss while still celebrating simple pleasures. My mom decided not to cook and host the Thanksgiving meal this year. Now instead of stressing out over cleaning the house and cooking, my mom can visit friends, play with her granddaughter, and slow down the usual pace of her life in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Last year my daughter was born, the first grandchild in the family. She’s brought us boundless joy, and has been a welcome light in the darkness of Rob’s illness and death. I’m not sure she’s old enough to “get” Thanksgiving yet, but she’ll no doubt make us smile on Thursday just as she does every day.

Instead of expecting yourself or your grieving loved ones to muster over-the-top holiday joy, turn to the things that make you happy in your regular life. Eat your favorite foods on Thanksgiving instead of the traditional foods that many people don’t even care for. Watch football if that makes you happy. Or go for a walk. Curl up with a good book. End the day with a hot bath. Do whatever relaxes and nurtures you. Skip the malls and the websites. Curl up with loved ones and appreciate a day off from work, a day to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Create new traditions.

With my mom off-duty, we planned to go to a restaurant instead. We made reservations at one of our favorite places and looked forward to the treat of a delicious meal without prep or clean-up. But an invitation from a family friend was even more appealing, so we will go to their house on Thursday.

If you’re dreading the prospect of sitting down at a familiar table without a beloved familiar face, consider changing the scenery entirely. Go to a restaurant, ask a different family member to host, or see if a friend will have you over. Make new traditions at a new table and eliminate value judgments–different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

Change won’t eliminate your grief but may ease it. However you spend the holiday, find a meaningful way to honor your loved one.

I’m grateful that Rob was in my life.

This year I’ve decided to honor my brother’s memory by focusing my gratitude on having him in my life. Rob was a wonderful companion to share childhood with. He looked out for me. As an adult, he inspired me with his many achievements and the quiet determination with which he overcame major obstacles. We bonded over my pregnancy, as Rob looked forward to being an uncle and teaching his niece how to play tennis. Throughout his illness and treatments, Rob never complained of pain. Now when I think of him I’m inspired to work harder, follow my dreams, treat others with love and compassion, and appreciate this life I’ve been given.

 

 

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