My family will have one empty seat at the dinner table this Christmas, joining countless other families who have experienced the death of a loved one in the past year. Although holidays are often reasons for joyful celebrations, they can also be painful reminders of the loved ones who are no longer with us. The hole they leave in our lives can be especially apparent when we notice the vacant role they usually play in the various holiday traditions that are unique to every family. The death of people we care about can leave us with an agonizing sense of emptiness, a vacuum, or void that cannot be satisfied despite our best efforts and the best intentions of others to comfort us in our sorrow.
Sometimes friends with good intentions attempt to help by offering opportunities for temporary distractions from our anguished thoughts. Although this usually does not remove the weight of our sadness, it is probably beneficial if grieving people can be prevented from marinating too much in their own sorrows. Grief does have the tendency of driving people into isolation, if only into the isolation of their own minds.
Rather than make a futile attempt to escape the reality of our circumstances, I personally think that it is better to focus directly on them. My family will keep a seat empty at the table in the usual place where our dearly departed always sits. We will remember him with plenty of photos, home movies, and funny stories from past holidays or about daring home improvement projects that went terribly wrong.
My church has a beautiful tradition that is intended to prevent the bereaved from becoming too isolated in their sorrow. Toward the end of the year, there is a special service for all of the families that have lost loved ones in the previous year. Each of the deceased is mentioned by name as a candle inscribed with their name is lit. The families are invited to take the candle home at the conclusion of the service, often to become the centerpiece of the holiday table. Following the service, there is a reception that allows the grieving families to share their common bond of loss with one another.
A public event like this makes it very clear how many people are suffering at this time of year. It also astonishes me how many people attend to remember a particular deceased person, serving as a powerful reminder about how many lives each individual has touched. These events have also taught me that recognizing the suffering of people around us and reaching out to comfort others can be a powerful remedy for our own sadness.
A mentor once told me that the human experience includes a wide range of emotions, and it is healthy and necessary to experience and express all of them. Those of us who have lost loved ones will have no choice but to experience and express sadness this holiday season and on special occasions throughout the year. It is simply a part of life.