The Empty Chairs At The Christmas Table

Tis the season to be jolly… and more than any other moment, a time to share with families. Millions of us will travel millions of miles on planes, trains and in our cars to make sure we “get home” for Christmas; or be stocking our fridges and freezers and cupboards to overflowing to welcome sons and daughters, mums and dads, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and in-laws…It’s what it’s all about!

But how about if this year, Mum or Dad or Gramps isn’t around any more? What if your child, your Baby, isn’t around anymore? Their place at the table, the one where they always sat, starkly empty, reminding us of our loss? How can we celebrate and eat too much, drink too much, laugh stupidly over silly games, when they aren’t there to share it with us? How can we feel anywhere near happy when the sadness at their loss is still a gut-wrenching ache?

When I was 10 my Dad died. He was just 39. Horrid enough, of course, but it was the 23rd of November and his funeral a bare three weeks before Christmas. Mum, suddenly widowed, suddenly bereft of a darling husband she loved so deeply, had to dig deep and “do Christmas” for the sake of four children ranging from five to 15. I still can’t fathom how she made it through… how amazingly difficult it must have been to decorate the house, trim the tree, to play Santa, replacing my Dad creeping into our rooms to place stockings at the end of each bed, carving the turkey when it had always been his job.

Looking back I think that, shellshocked, all of us clung on to the ritual and tradition like a life belt, keeping us from drowning in our sorrow. Of course it was flat, of course we weren’t “celebrating” but in a strange way it became the measure of our strength: if we could still make Christmas happen, then we were making it through. And so, in the years following, yes we made the trip to the crematorium on the anniversary of Dad’s death, we laid the flowers and wiped clean his plaque, we cried… but we didn’t allow our sadness to haunt the feasting, the gift-opening, the charades, the laughter. We missed him, we never lost our love of him, but we never lost our love of Christmas.
Fast forward and, though no Christmas could be quite as sad as that first without my dad, I’ve been through many more that “were never going to be the same” because of other empty chairs – good friends, my mum, my mother-in-law, and, most recently my brother-in-law, Jamie (again, sudden, again too, too young). He always came to us… how could it be fun without his amazing grin, his too-loud laugh – and who was going to make the gravy?! (Stuff Jamie; Dan did make the most marvellous gravy.)

Everyone deals with grief in their own way but these are the things that have helped and continue to help me through:
* Don’t feel guilty for moments of happiness in the midst of grief – it is OK to smile and laugh even when bereavement is new.
* Don’t feel you can’t speak their name out loud – “Right about now Mum would have been nodding off in that chair, paper hat and all”
* Don’t be afraid to show your feelings; if you need a little cry or a hug, then just do it or ask for it. Need time alone? Take it.
* Talking in your head or even out loud to the person you’ve lost can help you remember that connection and love you felt.
* And clichéd, but use Happy Christmas as a time to remember the happy times… my Mum loved an inspirational quote, and had a really schmaltzy plate which I’ve now inherited, and though (sorry Mum!) it’s decidely naff – a natty foursome of genteel ladies and gents, Regency period, racing through the snow in a coach and four – it comes out every year because the little motto around the base actually does give me strange comfort: “Across the miles of memories sweet, at Christmas time, old friends still meet”.

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