An Empty Seat at the Table: Grieving During the Holidays.
Jennifer Owen MA, LPC, NCC
Thursday, November 22nd, 2012. I distinctly remember standing in the dining room of my grandparent’s house as we were about to pray over Thanksgiving dinner. There was an awkward pause. Usually, Papa prays before we eat. This year, he wasn’t there. I look over at the dining room table and his chair is empty. Grief sets in.
The topic of grief is one that I do not approach lightly. I do not pretend to know the exact grieving process of others. However, I do know that grief is something that everyone must deal with at some point in life. I want to share my thoughts about grief from my own experience; being sensitive to the fact that each individual grieves in their own time and in their own way. With that being said, here are some thoughts that have helped me in my own grieving process; specifically, during the holiday season. Hopefully, you can find them helpful too.
Grief comes in many forms. Most discussions on grief will discuss Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief” from her book On Death and Dying. The five stages of grief include denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 1969). You may be asking “how do I know what stage I’m in?” Take a look at the table below and see how each stage might manifest itself.
Can you identify some of these grief responses in your own life? I know I can! Can you identify some of these responses in a family member or friend who is also grieving? Yep, me too. This list certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it can give you a good picture of what grief can look like. As you probably already know, people who are grieving don’t always go through these stages sequentially. This is totally normal. It is important to remind ourselves that these are normal reactions to grief. Try not to judge yourself (or others) on these normal grief responses.
Grief takes time.
One of the best analogies that I have ever read about dealing with grief over time is called, “The Ball and The Box”. I first discovered this analogy while scrolling through Facebook and a friend had shared this twitter post by Lauren Herschel. Lauren explains how grief is like a ball in a box with a pain button inside the box. In the beginning, the ball is large and is constantly bumping into the pain button. We cannot control the ball from bouncing around and hitting the button. The frustration and pain seem constant; and quite frankly at times, unbearable. As time goes on, the ball gets smaller. Because the ball is smaller, it hits the pain button less frequently. Don’t get me wrong, when the small ball hits the pain button, it still hurts (a lot)! But over time, you find ways to cope with the pain and recover faster.
Can you see this in your own life? The grief experience that you have been thinking about in your head throughout reading this blog. Do you remember what it felt like at the beginning of that grief? Constant. Unbearable. It feels like a bad dream that you can’t wake up from. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. We’re not okay. That grief is the large ball in the box. That is walking into their home the first time without them being there. That is the first Sunday without them calling to check up on you. That is the empty chair at the table during the holiday dinner.
But, as time goes on. That ball of grief gets smaller and smaller. Yes, the grief will come out of the blue – when you least expect it. When you do a double-take in the grocery store because from the corner of your eye it looked so much like you’re loved one. When you go to another holiday dinner without them. However, the pain doesn’t come in as often. We find ways to cope with it. We find people to grieve with and go-to for comfort. We’re okay.
There is hope!
When I say, “There is hope”, this in no way implies the mentality of “just get over it”. We can’t just “get over” the loss of a loved one. However, when we have hope the grieving process tends to be much easier. So what is this hope? Where does it come from?
First, Scripture states that God is compassionate towards us, understands our struggles, and comforts us in our time of need (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). God is the author of all comfort. He understands, he knows you, you do not have to go through the grieving process alone. Pray for his comfort. He is ready to graciously shower you with his comforting love.
Because of the comfort that God gives us, we can turn around and give comfort to others. Have you ever just needed a shoulder to cry on? Someone to listen to you vent? When comforting others, you don’t have to have the best advice, you don’t have to have all the right answers, and you don’t have to say “I understand what you are going through.” Sometimes the most comforting thing to say (or hear) is “I’m here for you”.
Finally, Paul explains in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 that our grieving process is not like others who grieve. Why is this? Because we find our hope in Jesus. We can find comfort in the fact that those who put their faith and trust in Jesus have eternal life. It is possible to see our loved ones again one day when we put our faith and trust in Jesus.
When you arrive at the holiday festivities this year and see the empty seat at the table please remember that grief comes in many forms, grief takes time, and there is hope! If this topic of grief really hits home for you, I want to encourage you to talk to someone about it. Talk to God, talk to a friend, or even come talk to a counselor. We are here for you. You are not alone.
Herschel, L. (2017, December 29). The Ball and the Box. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/LaurenHerschel/status/946887540732149760?ref_src=twsrc^tfw|twcamp^tweetembed|twterm^946887540732149760&ref_url=https://themighty.com/2018/12/ball-box-analogy-grief/.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying.