To some, empty chairs are wood and glue. To those mourning, they are grief personified.
The crimson leaves of a Poinsettia droop delicately in a silver vase as we spooned sweet potatoes into our mouths. The soft mound was warm, and when I closed my eyes, gladness encompassed me. When I inevitably glanced at an empty chair, it was over.
All at once, everything on my plate lost its once glorious appeal. It was Christmas dinner, a meal hallmarking my favorite holiday, but grief has a habit of making the holidays bitter to the taste.
Grief has a habit of making the holidays bitter to the taste.
I was only 15 years old when I lost my mom. Now, she—the one whose soft, worn tummy bore my and my siblings’ sloppy tears—wasn’t sitting where I longed for her to sit. Because of this, every year holiday tables bite. Subtly grief offers an open door to bitterness. Yet, in the same moment, grief offers something else—a telescope to see the skies our loved ones relished with meaning which extends beyond our understanding. It gives us a magnifying glass, a tool to identify the “small stuff” as enormously important.
This knowledge flooded my brain in between bites at dinner. I was deaf to the conversation around me. Beyond the Poinsettia, the empty chair stared me down. I glared at it for making room for grief at our family table, for surfacing the painful intimate memories I ached to suppress. I longed for the seat to use its four legs and walk out the front door, but it would not budge.
I glared at it for making room for grief at our family table, for surfacing the painful intimate memories I ached to suppress.
I realized the tension which overcame me at the sight of innocent carpentry meant I was fighting to numb and avoid the pain of grieving. For a long time, I did not feel ready to look at grief, but all the running accomplished was unhinged anxiety and chaotic avoidance. Acknowledging my inability to keep up the facade was nauseating but necessary for my mental health. It was in this place of surrender that I opened my hands for healing mercies that God graciously poured out on my tired weeping body.
This season, I’ll allow my taste buds to dull for a moment and mourn the tangible embrace of my mom on Christmas morning. I’ll grieve for loved ones who are not at the table with us. Yet, I’ll rejoice because they are somewhere much better, where the table is eternally good.
I won’t move the empty chair nor drop my purse atop of it. Instead, I’ll let it be an available seat—a signpost that says there is space at our table. I’ll grieve because I miss my mom, but she would want me to eat.
I’ll let it be an available seat—a signpost that says there is space at our table.
As I spoon more potatoes in my mouth—by sheer grace—they are no longer bitter. They are sweet.
Have you lost a loved one? How do you manage grief during the holidays?
Image via Ben Cope, Darling Issue No. 6