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Empty Places at the Table: Coping with Loss Around the Holidays

+JMJ+ It hardly seems possible, but the holidays are once again upon us and, as so often happens, they bring with them a flood of varying emotions. Considering the pain, heartache, and grief from this part year, I am entering into this holiday season with a heavy heart. Yes, I recognize all the blessings around me but, nonetheless, I am grieving and am allowing myself to do so. This year, I find myself still reeling from, not only the tragic loss of my cousin, but the loss of my aunt, the loss of a dear friend, and other losses and disappointments.


There is no one right or wrong way to grieve. What works for some, may not work for others, and that's ok! Also, it's important to remember that there is no time limit to grief. For example, my brother, Matt, passed away 18 years ago and, while my family has learned to cope with his absence, we still miss him terribly especially around the holidays, the time of year when families tend to come together. Matt's absence is still very painful and I expect I will always notice his obvious absence. The holidays were forever changed when Matt died. They changed again when my Babcia (my mom's mother) died and again when my Mimi and Pucka (my dad's parents) died. This year, my aunt and my cousin will be missing and, since their losses are still fresh, my heart is very heavy – the hole ripped into the heart by grief is still very much apparent.

My own pain as of late has me thinking about the realities of loss around the holidays, and I want to share some ideas to (hopefully) help anyone who may be dreading this supposed “most wonderful time of the year.”

  • Grieving is healthier than avoiding reality and so, for starters, it's important to accept that things will never be the same again. Ask God for the grace to accept that it's going to be tough. No one “enjoys” grief (obviously) but ignoring it doesn't help anyone. Ignoring a loved one's absence only makes the loss all the more apparent and grief will present itself in some other fashion at one time or another. It's important to acknowledge our losses and to avoid entering into the season with a fake smile and an attitude of, “I'm fine.” It's ok to not be ok! There is no need to put on a happy face all the time in an effort to please others or in order to appear ok. There's no use denying the obvious – you are hurting - and, in the long run, you're only hurting yourself by avoiding your grief.

  • Share your grief with others. Our shared grief helps us to feel more “normal” and far less alone. There's no need to suffer alone! Grief can be extremely isolating and some of us have the tendency to unintentionally push others away in times of sadness. Whenever I'm tempted to withdraw into my own little bubble of grief, I have to remind myself that I'm not the only one suffering. It's ok to tell my parents, my brothers, my husband, or my friends how much I miss my brother. It's ok for us to cry and hug one another. It's therapeutic to share stories and memories of our loved ones and speak of days gone by. I love calling to mind the funny things my brother used to do – what a gift laughter is and, boy, Matt loved to laugh too! In a way, I honor his memory when I can enjoy the things he enjoyed. I treasure those precious memories of him! Allow your loved ones to live on in your hearts and minds. Keep their memories alive.

  • Pray for your deceased loved ones. Have a Mass offered for them, pray a Rosary for them as a family, light a candle at church in their memory, and remember them in prayer before family dinner.

  • Set a place for your loved one(s) at the holiday table and create a little memorial. Give him/her a place setting, place pictures and little tangible memories in their place.

  • Simplify. There's no need to host the big family party if that's a task you usually take on. You don't have to attend the big Christmas party at work. You don't have to do the things you would typically do. A break or a change isn't always a bad thing. You may find that you need to find new traditions and that's ok.

  • If you can, try to do something you enjoy. Take care of yourself. The holidays can be so stressful and the added stress of grief can make you feel as though you're going to go over the edge. Allow yourself the opportunity to slow down, remember that it's ok to cry when you need to, and take some time alone and/or time with the people who you most want to be with. Don't feel guilty for backing out of the parties and events you would ordinarily participate in. Make sure you're getting enough rest, exercising and eating healthy. Be careful of falling into the trap of turning to alcohol or food in an effort to ease your grief. Those things may mask it temporarily but they don't fix anything and can lead to serious issues in the long-run.

  • As much as possible, avoid toxic individuals and people who aren't supportive. I've dealt with them - the individuals who tell you that “you should just be thankful for what you have and move on” or the people who make you feel guilty because you're “not yourself.” Of course you're not yourself after a loss or tragedy! Some people might make you feel guilty for crying and other people may make you feel guilty when you're not crying – one extreme to the other. Then there are the people who really don't “get” what you're going through but pretend to understand or people who try to get you to do unhealthy or sinful things to mask the pain. The truth is, not everyone is going to understand the wild and varying emotions of grief – sadness, anger, resentment, and sometimes even guilt - and it's not up to you to have to explain yourself to everyone. Sometimes it's just better to just ask God for the wisdom to know when to cut ties (whether it be permanently or temporarily) and then ask Him for the strength and courage to walk away.

  • Personally, I always find that focusing on the things I am grateful for can be very therapeutic. I find a certain joy, sweetness, and gratitude in knowing that my loved ones who have gone before me were a part of my life. Not only is it helpful to focus on gratitude for the gift of their lives and for beautiful memories, but it can also help us to refocus our gaze onto the deeper meaning of the holiday being celebrated. I know this may seem impossible at times. I, too, struggle with thoughts of, "What do I have to be grateful for? I've lost so much!" The reality is, yes, I have lost a lot but I also still have a lot. I try to make it a practice to make a list of things I am most thankful for (however small) at the end of each day. I find this practice to be especially important for me during the holidays.

No matter how much time has gone by, our hearts will understandably forever carry around the burden of grief. While you do eventually learn how to live in your new reality (whether it be life without a loved one's presence or learning to live again after any sort of trauma), getting there takes time and, the fact of the matter is, life is never the same. For me, the holidays are always bittersweet but, despite the empty chairs at the holiday table, I find some comfort in knowing that my loved ones are still with us in our minds, hearts, and memories.

I'm praying in a special way for all of you who are facing any kind of grief this holiday season. You are not alone! May Our Lord hold you close in His embrace and grant you comfort, peace, and healing.

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