I wrote this piece several weeks ago, but with the holidays upon us I realize many of you will have a place at your holiday table newly vacant by the death of a loved one. My heartfelt sympathy for your loss. While my experience is in the distant past, the rituals and traditions we establish stay with us, as are the memories.
The table, a place where we take our meals and enjoy the company of our family, relax, race for the last muffin and talk about the day and plans for tomorrow. I would venture to say most families have their own place at the kitchen or dining table, a semblance of the family structure . Perhaps an older parent has come to live with you, or as is the case with so many, an extended family member resides with you. Regardless of the relationship, the emptiness of a chair once occupied by a loved one now deceased is a source of heartache at mealtime.
After the memorial services have concluded, friends and family go back to their own lives, and with our tears not yet dry, how can we possibly deal with this constant reminder before us? Should we change seats or keep things as they are? You might ask yourself, if I remove the seat, will I feel like I’m trying to erase the existence of our loved one? I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to this impasse when my husband and father to my three young children died.
I decided to move mealtime to the dining room; I even allowed the children to take their dinner on snack tables in front of the TV, anything to avoid the kitchen table. I followed through with my husband’s idea of remodeling the kitchen, because it was original to this 50 year old house. The cupboard doors hung gingerly from worn hardware, the floor was old linoleum and a nightmare to keep clean. Our appliances needed replacement, the dishwasher removed two years earlier was camouflaged by a curtain becoming a neat hiding spot for the kids. I forged ahead with our contractor, which would mean we’d have no kitchen for several weeks. My children thought it was the best, eating pizza and fast food at every turn. As the weeks passed, the kitchen was coming together and I would finally be able to prepare home cooked meals again. A large peninsula replaced the kitchen table, remedying the empty chair. After the newness of our modern kitchen wore off, my children said with some resentment that they wished we had our old kitchen back. With a heavy heart I realized I may have acted too hastily, I only wanted to spare my children anymore sadness than they already felt. Instead, of mitigating their pain, I left them mourning for an old kitchen that held their precious memories.
Many years later my father, Papa Joe came to live with us. He sat at the end of of our dining room table where he could maneuver his walker with easy access to his bedroom. Papa Joe died a little over a year from when he moved in; and once again we were faced with the empty chair. This time I allowed the chair to remain empty; we embrace the somber moments, share our memories, and laugh at Papa Joe’s antics.
This Thanksgiving, my brother and his growing family will join us. Paul is now the family patriarch and will occupy the once-empty chair. When we give thanks, we’ll give honorable mention to those only with us in spirit.
The empty chair: a scenario that will play out through time, but if I have learned anything through this experience, it’s to trust the process of grieving. I learned that by embracing the empty chair, we work through an important emotion together, each helping the other at our family table.