Coping with an empty chair in the season of ‘celebrations’

Christmas might be a Christian festival, but it is also an all-inclusive social celebration. 

This is a season when we dress up, share gifts, eat and drink our favourite treats. A good percentage of family photos are taken during these happy events. 

Things are again different this year, and at the time of writing this, there are still unknowns. “Work from home, but party on” has been the latest message (here in the UK) but we don’t know if this will yet change. Thinking back to how the lockdown unfolded during the 2020 Christmas season might make us nervous. There is also the basic fact that the pandemic is far from over. 

Yet whatever else is happening around us, the bereaved are also faced with something else. The empty chair.

The empty chair

When you first lose someone significant in your life – a partner, a child, a parent, a close friend – the agony of your initial grief may feel overwhelming. The absence of the one you love has created a great void; you feel as though you are teetering at the edge, your footing unsure as you face a future without their presence. It may seem impossible that you will ever again find joy in daily living. Your days feel constantly framed by your loss.

As time passes, you discover ways to keep going, and gradually the agonising days become fewer. You find meaning in your life; you start to smile again. Although your heart still yearns for your loved one, you are coping with your grief. It may not be only necessity that sends you back to work; you find that activity helps. Your life will never be the same again yet nevertheless, you are living it as best as you can.

But grief isn’t a linear process – it doesn’t follow a straight line. Just because yesterday you were in a place of relative calm does not guarantee how you will feel tomorrow. If “tomorrow” is one of these seasons like Christmas, you might want to brace yourself. It’s only natural that you will feel sad.

The very worst might be the first time this event takes place without your loved one, but subsequent years can still be painful, as the permanence of their absence slowly sinks in. Now, in this new reality of your life, there will be no cards or gifts to share with the one who was special to you. Their smiling face will not appear in any new photographs. There is an empty place at the table.

Coping with the unavoidable

You might find yourself dreading the Christmas season. Your grief might be made worse by any isolation caused by the pandemic. If you’re not able to take part in a gathering of family or friends, you might feel relieved, but then again, you may feel desperately sad. If you are alone at home, it might be hard to find ways to distract yourself. For instance, some of us enjoy a visit to the shops in search of gifts for friends and family, but we might not be sure if this is so advisable at the moment. So what can you do to cope? 

Here are some ideas you might like to consider.

  • Plan ahead. December 25th is on its way, along with all of the days leading up to it. You might find it easier to have some idea in advance of how you want to pass the time.
  • Manage your expectations. Many of us have our own traditions for how we celebrate the Christmas season. There might be parties, gift-opening, Christmas dinner, a visit to church, or favourite drinks. Some of this might seem empty and futile without the presence of your loved one. This is the reality of your loss.   
  • Allow yourself time to grieve. You are missing someone who is important to you, and you might feel the sadness of your grief even more deeply at the moment. Try to take some comfort in remembering the happy moments you shared together with your loved one. Celebrate their life. 
  • Be kind to yourself.  You don’t have to fulfil every expectation you have of yourself, nor do you need to accept every invitation. If you would enjoy meeting up with friends or family (pandemic-permitting), meet up with them. If you enjoy singing Christmas carols, sing away. But if you’d rather have a quiet Christmas, that’s fine too. Even if you have a partner, children or other family members to take care of during the holidays, still try to make moments for yourself.
  •  If you shared some traditions together with your loved one, you might want to find ways to continue. For instance, drinking hot chocolate on Christmas morning, taking a stroll in the park on New Year’s Day come rain, snow or shine, having a birthday breakfast in bed, watching a particular television programme, going to a religious service, and so on.
  • On the other hand, you should never feel that you have to continue something that is no longer bringing you comfort, and sometimes it can be better to find new ways to mark the day. Some people like to visit their loved one’s grave, or light candles, or give a toast to him or her at a family meal, or even volunteer at a charity event or go away for a few days.
  • When you are around other people – in person or virtually – it is up to you whether to include your loved one in the “conversation” by mentioning their name or things about them. You might feel hurt if your friends or family don’t do this. They could have good intentions, but this could make you feel lonelier in your grief. You might need to take the lead and let the people around you know if you are comfortable talking about your loved one. 
  • It can be frustrating to not be able to give gifts to your loved one , but you could give something to someone else in their memory. Buy a gift, if you wish, and leave it under the tree, if you wish. Then, before or after Christmas, donate it to a charity or someone who would appreciate it. 
  • If your faith is a comfort to you, participate in Christmas (or other religious) services if you wish, but be prepared for your emotions. It’s hard to know what might get to you. Singing about angels in heaven has sometimes sent me into floods of tears as I think about my angels in heaven. On the other hand, for many people Christmas services and carol singing bring a breath of joy and hope. If this is how you experience Christmas, embrace it.  
  • Many churches and support groups hold special memorial services around this time – perhaps moved online in 2020. You might want to participate and be comforted in the company of others who, like you, are grieving.
  • Avoid trying to drown your sorrows in drink or other substances. Excess alcohol tends to amplify your emotions and rarely helps if we’re feeling nostalgic. 
  • Keeping yourself occupied and physically active could be one way of avoiding melancholy. You may or may not enjoy baking, doing craft, playing music, cleaning out a cupboard, washing the car, going for a walk in the chill winter air, and so on, but just the fact that you are moving and doing things could help you manage your feelings and be a needed distraction. Even a few minutes in the fresh air is important too.
  • Avoid what gets you down! If you are feeling smothered by sentimental Christmas ads and TV programmes, switch off the TV or watch something non-Christmas related on a streaming service like BBC IPlayer or Netflix.  
  • If you are going through particularly difficult moments, if you are overwhelmed and feel unable to cope, seek for help. A friend or family member may be able to offer a listening ear. In a crisis you can call the Samaritans on their 24/7 helpline on 116 123  (free call).
  • Sometimes it isn’t Christmas itself that is a problem for the bereaved, but the ceaseless march towards the New Year. The concept of starting a new year without the living presence of a loved one can be very painful. If this is how you’re feeling, you might want to plan how to occupy yourself on New Year’s Eve.

Finally, remember that it’s okay to enjoy the season if you are enjoying it. The glitter of Christmas might be off-putting to some, but if it brings a spark of light into the gloominess of your grief, then let the light in, by all means. 


PS. If you have friends who are grieving

If your grieving friends are now alone, please think about inviting them for a meal, or if that is not possible, at least visit them ‘virtually’ on Zoom or some other method. What matters most to many people is that their loved ones are remembered. You can make this season a little easier by mentioning them in your greetings, in person or in a card. You could  make a donation to a charity in their loved one’s name, or buy a gift in their memory to be given to one of the many charities collecting gifts for needy children or the homeless. Just something to show you care about your friend, and you also remember and care about their loved ones.

Particularly if this is one of the first few Christmases since their loss, be aware just how vulnerable and emotional they may be feeling. A hug and a listening ear can’t make it all better, but it can make it easier to bear.


An empty chair in an empty house of sorts. A rough construction made out of driftwood, spotted on the beach near Westward Ho! in Devon. Perhaps the emptiness and desolation of this structure might reflect how we feel about how home or life now that our loved one is no longer with us.

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