Surviving Holidays When There’s An Empty Chair At The Table

human-emotion-happiness-3“Nine, ten, eleven,…eleven….eleven.” I burst into tears as I realized that I needed one less chair at the table. Then it was like an avalanche as I thought about those who would no longer be celebrating with us because they had recently passed away.  I wanted the holiday to be such a happy one, but the grief seemed to have a mind of its own. It liked to come and go when I least expected it. I needed a strategy to get through this day without sinking into a melancholy. If you’ve found some things that help, I’d love to hear from you! I believe my readers would too. I’d love to add your thoughts to a follow-up post.  Here’s my 2 cents’ worth:

Give the tears a time slot, but don’t let them take over the whole day. Once you’ve had a good cry, shift your focus onto what is before you. Even if it’s something as mundane as, “what ingredient goes in next?” We all need to grieve when we’ve lost a loved one. But like many things, sometimes boundaries are needed so grief doesn’t get to steal from us. Boundaries like:

  1. Grief, yes. Grief at all times and in all places? No. Sometimes this means compartmentalizing grief. Saying, “No, grief you don’t get to fill my mind. Not today.” I’ll take time to remember my loved one for a time today, but then, grief gets shelved. During this holiday, I choose to focus on those before me.
  2. Grief yes, despair…no. We grieve, but not like those who have no hope. We serve the God of hope. I remember one time when my grief veered into despair. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to pull myself out of it. It felt like I was in an emotional hurricane and couldn’t find my way out. I could barely lift my head. It wasn’t until my husband called a few close friends and asked them to pray for me that I was able to come out of despair. If your grief/loneliness has turned to despair, don’t try to go this alone. We’re not islands. We need one another. Ask others to stand with you by praying for you.

Another way to survive the holidays when there’s an empty chair is to focus on provision, not lack. It’s all too easy to focus on the one or ones that we cannot be with for the holiday.  But when we do this, we miss out on those who ARE here. Those we’ve been given the incredible gift of their presence. In the movie, “A beautiful day in the neighborhood, a down and out man asked Mr. Rogers what the most important thing in his life was. Mr Rogers replied that the most important thing in his life right then was talking to him. He honored the presence of others by giving them his undivided attention. Maybe this holiday we can find joy, not by trying to forget, but by seeing those who are still here.

If you’re all alone this holiday, push through and pick up the phone. Encourage someone else with a friendly greeting. They may be hurting too.

Guarding against self-pity is another way we can navigate the holidays when we’re missing someone. This one is a little scary to put in a post about loneliness and grief. It almost implies that the pain is unwarranted, but that isn’t true. Grief and loneliness are very real. They’re some of the hardest feelings we’ll ever experience.

So why bring up self-pity? It was a blind spot for me for many years. I didn’t see the damage it was causing. It opened the door to so much pain for myself and my loved ones.

In his book entitled, Wrestling Prayer, Eric Ludy states, “Self-pity has destroyed more men and women than maybe any other vice. Self-pity appears smallish, weak, and almost cute. It appears to be some harmless luxury of the human soul in hard times – but for all its seeming neutrality, self-pity has proven the conqueror of kings, princes, prophets, and mighty men throughout the ages.”

Self-pity can get a foothold when we aren’t intentionally looking for things to be grateful for. We ALL have countless things to be thankful for. but it takes time and energy to focus on our blessings. This is especially true when we’re grieving.  Instead of focusing on the thousands of things we DO have, self-pity focuses on the things we don’t have. It’s easy to think that when God told us to, “Be joyful always and give thanks in all circumstances,” that He was asking us to make some kind of sacrifice; but God was giving us a gift. Giving thanks is one step toward taking our eyes off of our pain. Off of our loss. Self-pity tempts us to navel gaze. Not because we’re trying to be selfish, but because we’re trying to figure out how to survive. But if we continue to focus inward, we shrink and crush ourselves with thoughts of what we want but cannot have.

Self-pity loses its’ ability to bring anguish into our hearts when we surrender the “self” we are trying so hard to comfort to the lordship of Christ. Jesus said in Luke 9:23-24,  …“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” In practical terms, we do this when we take our eyes off of our own pain and focus on God through praise and thanksgiving. When we do this, we make Him the center…the focus.

So, what exactly is self-pity? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way:

“ a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.”

Self-pity is so dangerous because it drowns out the fruits of the spirit from our lives. Things like love, joy, peace… When I was immersed in self-pity, I had many amazing people in my life, but I would focus on the relationship that I wanted but could not have. It was like I had a million dollars in the bank, but couldn’t enjoy it because all I could see was what I didn’t have. Nothing defeats self-pity like gratitude. This Thanksgiving, won’t you join me in thanking God for the countless blessings in our lives? He has blessed us with, “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”


2 thoughts on “Surviving Holidays When There’s An Empty Chair At The Table

  1. Wise Hearted November 28, 2019 / 6:31 pm

    Wise words for dealing with grief any time. I miss my mother the most at thanksgiving because we always spent it with her and my step dad. But am so thankful she is in a place of piece and is whole again, no dementia to cloud her mind so I dwell on that perspective when the grief over whelms me. Thankfulness soften grief. Happy Thanksgiving.


    • Arlene November 29, 2019 / 2:16 am

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your kind comment…


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