Empty chairs at the table this holiday season

There’s nothing like the holidays and a new year around the corner to remind us that 2020 is almost over. This year let’s try to take nothing for granted. Especially since millions of Americans will soon sit down to a holiday meal with one or more loved ones missing. Those empty chairs are a reminder of what we have endured this year. Whether it be loved ones who are sick, unable to travel or those we have lost, more people than ever are missing at tables around the country and the world.

In difficult times it is hard to stay hopeful. But especially this year, it’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, many of us have lived through other forms of sadness or loss. Kids grow up and move away, parents and grandparents pass, those who serve overseas are unable to come home to be with their families, and the list goes on. Although we may not know when the world will return to a sense of normalcy, we all await the day that the pandemic ends and the virus becomes a thing of the past.

For many of us, this will not be easy, but there is hope. We can still find meaning, connection, and cheer in the things we do have, even if it feels at times that we don’t have much.

In our household, the holidays were the best time of year because we always spent them together. Decked out holiday trees, apple cider, a lavish spread of entrees and sides, silly holiday outfits for the dogs. We all gathered at the table over great food, exchanged stories and memories, and talked about how this was our favorite time of year. But this is the fourth year that one of the seats at our table will be empty. And that is a reality my family faces every year. Sometimes learning by doing is the best we can do, and then we get better at it as the years go on. Since this year is my fourth time around since the loss, I learned a few things from previous years that I hope can be of help to others.

Know that parts of the holiday will be wonderful and that some will be sad. For me, the anticipation of the upcoming holiday season is usually worse than the actual holiday itself. I find myself becoming more anxious as the holidays grow closer, but then find that the holidays themselves provide some level of healing. That’s not to say there aren’t some days that I feel sad. There are many days like that, but the important thing to note is that not every day will be like that. Some days will be better than others, and as time goes on, the good days will eventually outnumber the bad.

It’s OK to feel the way you feel. Grief often recruits many different emotions within us, and when we’re feeling multiple emotions at once, untangling one particular emotion can be difficult. One feeling that is particularly difficult to handle is anger, given that it is socially unacceptable to be angry during the holidays. But pretending nothing is wrong won’t spare you any pain. It is important to acknowledge the way you feel, because stuffing this feeling down and repressing it will only amplify it, and it will manifest at a future time. Often when your emotional reserve is wearing thin. Acknowledging whatever emotions you may be feeling is the best way to understand them, sort them out, and move forward.  When your emotions feel out of whack, and you are having difficulty coping, do your best to remember the good times, laugh about funny memories, and acknowledge that you miss the person you loved so much.

Just be. Sometimes holidays can be difficult for peripheral family members, and by that, I mean in-laws, close family friends, work acquaintances, neighbors, etc. These times are often trying for them because they don’t know what to say or what to do. A good rule of thumb is, if you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Family gatherings can be tense, particularly if the loss is recent. When people are in pain, they tends to be more reactive due to having less emotional reserve than usual. Instead of focusing on trying to “fix” things, just be there. Chances are the family you are trying to support is grateful just for your presence. Remember that silence is powerful. So if you want to focus on something. Be a good friend, be a good listener, and just be present at the moment.

Take care of yourself. Try and follow your normal routine whenever possible, especially if it already includes eating healthy and exercising. When people are grieving, there can be a tendency to drown that pain in less healthy devices like sugar and alcohol. If alcohol is present, remember to drink responsibly or not at all if you’re worried about it being a problem. Keep up with exercise as this helps clear your mind and lower your stress. When you’re emotionally taxed, it is even more important to try to get good sleep.

Navigating family traditions. There is no easy answer when it comes to family traditions. It is usually best to discuss as a family what the best thing to do is. Sometimes family traditions can be a wonderful way to remember a loved one, but sometimes they can be too painful to bear without them. Finding a new normal is exceptionally difficult. Don’t feel obligated to come up with an answer for each subsequent holiday season now. Every year that goes by will be different, and plans can be adjusted accordingly.

Gift-giving. Gift-giving can be one of the toughest parts of the holidays because the lost loved one’s absence is so profound. It can be helpful to give a gift on behalf of the person who died to honor their memory. Donate to a hospital, assemble care packages for veterans, donate to a food bank, serve meals at a homeless shelter, adopt a pet, donate clothes or school supplies, etc.

One final word about loss during the holidays. It is often difficult to reflect on the holidays when we are grieving positively. One thing to keep in mind is that the loved one/ones we lost would want us to remember them fondly and enjoy the holiday season. The holidays are rare occasions when families who are often separated by long distances come together. That time is precious, and as we well know, is limited. Making the most of the time, you have together will be a work in progress and a pathway to healing.

Anjani Amladi is a psychiatrist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Anjani Amladi, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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