Empty Chair and Holiday Grief

Empty Chair and Holiday Grief

My mother died in January 2001. She missed September 11th, the anthrax attack and the Patriot Act. She missed the news of the space shuttle Columbia disintegration, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the death of Osama Bin Laden. She never saw my posts on Facebook or heard of Katrina, Irma or Ike. Sadly, she knew of Columbine but thankfully missed Sandy Hook, the Aurora theatre, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, and Thousand Oaks.

I, on the other hand, didn’t miss any of it. What I missed though was my Mom because what child doesn’t want her mommy when the world becomes a scary place?


I knew the first holiday season after my Mom’s death would be difficult. Holiday grief is the worst! I didn’t feel up to making our family’s most important dinner of the year. So we accepted an invitation to a friend’s Thanksgiving.

Their home, decorated for the holidays, sat on a bluff with a beautiful view of Puget Sound where the trees only recently lost their leaves. This was not a family we socialized with often…well, never actually. But their invitation was the first one we received, and I jumped at the chance to avoid playing hostess that year.

When we entered their home, sadness inched its way through my veins until I felt intense cold…until…until our host, not normally known for his warmth, came to me with a glass of wine in each hand and motioned me to follow him onto the balcony. I took a glass and stepped outside to feel the sting of the icy cold mist floating over the Sound. He shut the sliding door behind us to keep the warmth indoors and raised his glass to make a toast.

“To our mothers,” he said. He too lost his mother that year. “To our mothers,” I replied.  We each took a sip of wine and shared stories of our mothers and their Thanksgiving traditions. For almost an hour we talked and laughed and cried, and I was not the least bit cold anymore. When we finally drained our glasses, we returned to the holiday festivities.  Holiday grief is the worst!


Though I no longer recreate my mother’s Thanksgiving traditions, I now create my own. That first Thanksgiving I added a toast to my mom with another motherless friends. Now our tradition is dining at the home of our son, the chef, and eating his version of my Mom’s turkey dressing and cranberry sauce recipes.  She would be so proud.

Before we “moved on” to my son’s house for the holiday, effectively passing the Thanksgiving duties on to the next generation, I created other traditions, including lighting a candle (Bayberry, her favorite) and setting a chair at the table (sort of a Thanksgiving Elijah).


David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts on healing and loss, offers many solid tips on handling grief during the holidays. He often suggests saying a prayer or attending your place of worship, and while I appreciate these ideas, I tend to prefer other tips such as sharing a favorite story or memory.

I’m also pragmatic, so I favor his advice about Plan B or what you do when your initial plans with family and friends at Thanksgiving just don’t feel right.

Here are David’s suggestions for Plan B (with a few edits of my own):

• Go to a movie you think your lost loved one would enjoy (or not – just go for yourself!)
• Look through a photo album (or not – especially if most of the people in the pictures are dead)
• Go to a special place where the two of you would go (or not – find a new place that’s yours and yours alone)
• Take the year off. You don’t have to celebrate every holiday just because it’s there. (or not – try celebrating the holiday in a new way)


There is no right or wrong way to handle the Holidays in grief. You have to decide what is right for you and do it, and you have every right to change your mind, even a few times. Friends and family members may not have a clue how to help you through the Holidays and you may not either.

It is very natural to feel you may never enjoy the Holidays again. They will certainly never be the same as they were. However, in time, most people are able to find meaning again in the traditions as a new form of the Holiday Spirit grows inside of them. Even without grief, our friends and relatives often think they know how our Holidays should look, what “the family” should and shouldn’t do.


With some ideas from Kessler, I’ve gathered my own list of do’s below: 1. Do only what you want.
2. Do allow time for feelings.
3. Do cry if you feel like crying.
4. Do allow others to help.
5. If you have a grieving friend, do find ways to invite them to group events or just out for tea or coffee.
6. Do, in grief, pay attention to the children. Children are too often the forgotten grievers.
7. Do be gentle with yourself.
8. Do turn off the world…or at least the news (TV or Internet).

For more ideas, check out these other websites:

Surviving Thanksgiving: 6 tips for grievers on What’s Your Grief

How to Survive Thanksgiving Day Grief on Very Well

Handling the First Holidays After a Loss on Open to Hope


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on google
Share on linkedin
Share on email


OVERCOMING, New Play Festival Announced @18thandUnion @BroadwayWorld Check IT out! https://t.co/AJtDVfB8Zb Join me @RachelDelmar @movie_writer, 10/10 to 10/19 #SeattleTheatre @dramatistsguild

Check out Death Over Dinner hosted by @peoplesmemorial on October 27, 2019. https://t.co/LeuOTXL3HY. There are three different restaurants for that same night so check the website for the restaurant closest to you in the Seattle area. https://t.co/wVZ5q00QoC

Okay #Chicago area family and friends. Check the out. By @GriefDialogues book contributor @kimberlypaulnc



Grief Dialogues is an educational and informational community and not meant to diagnose or act as medical treatment. Professional support services based on life and grief coaching practices for moving forward after loss may be offered. If you are experiencing serious suicidal thoughts that you cannot control, please stop now and telephone 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


© 2019 | Grief Dialogues. All Rights Reserved.