Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Empty Chairs at Holiday Tables

Holidays can bring cheer, but also heartache as you see some empty chairs at your holiday table.

Phyllis had tears in her eyes as she began her holiday baking yesterday. "I miss my mother," she said. "We always spent holidays together. And for some reason, I feel her absence more this year." Her mother passed away not quite two years ago at age 103. Last holiday season, Phyllis and her husband were busy moving and settling into their new home. Now that they're settled, that empty chair at the table   is much more noticeable -- and painful.

For others, empty chairs mean loved ones are far away -- either geographically or emotionally.  You may long to share the holidays with family members, but no one has the money or the time off work to travel to spend the holidays together. Or an empty chair may mean an estrangement that hurts especially at this time of year.

What can you do when those empty chairs bring holiday heartache?

Get creative!

Get together by Skype or iCHAT for a virtual Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner! Bob and I have done this with my brother Mike and his wife Amp for several years now, even to the point of coordinating dinner times so we can actually eat our turkey and talk as if we were sharing a table.

Or, if you find yourself alone at the holidays, volunteer with your local soup kitchen or charity to serve dinner to those less fortunate. The joy of giving in a new way will boost your spirits for the holiday.

Connect to the past with traditions.

Special family recipes or rituals that have defined your holiday celebrations can keep happy memories alive and help you feel connected to those times and those missing people.

There is a family recipe for dressing that is so treasured that, when my brother was living in Thailand, he asked that I bring the ingredients over with me when Bob and I spent Christmas with him and Amp in Bangkok a few years ago.  Having that dressing made our holiday table feel official, even though it was missing some treasured family members -- who were later greeted via Skype.

Try something completely new this holiday season.

One of the best Thanksgivings we ever had followed a terrible family loss: my cousin Jack's wife Tanzy died of breast cancer at the age of 36 only three days before Thanksgiving.  Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- as well as Tanzy's mother and sister -- all from Kansas -- were in Los Angeles for the funeral. I asked them to my house for Thanksgiving. At first, they thought they'd just skip the holiday. Later, they called and said they'd love to come and bring some of their own holiday favorites. We had a very full table with loved ones we rarely had a chance to see on holidays, with delicious new foods and an opportunity to share loving memories of Tanzy as well as enjoying each other. Twenty-eight years later, I remember this particular Thanksgiving with warmth and gratitude.

Last Thanksgiving, Bob and I found ourselves alone. My brother and his wife -- with a new baby -- were in Indianapolis where he was involved in a research project. My sister, a nurse at a hospital in Seattle, was working the holiday for much-needed overtime pay.  Our young friend Ryan, who usually spent holidays with us, was in a new love relationship with Sean and wanted to spend the holiday at Sean's house.  Just as we were resigned to a scaled-down holiday at home, Ryan called with an invitation: to spend Thanksgiving with him and Sean and a dozen of their close friends.  We accepted happily -- first time in years I didn't cook anything (except dressing -- a special request from Ryan) and Bob and I spent a wonderful day and evening with Ryan, Sean, and a warm and accepting group of their friends -- about 10 gay men and one young woman who was a college friend of Ryan's.  It was another one of the best Thanksgivings ever!

This year, we are at our new home in Arizona and my brother and his family are in the middle of another move while my sister is working the holidays once again. All of our neighbors -- also new to the area -- are far from their families. So we're having a Thanksgiving celebration for our street at Phyllis and Wally's home with Phyllis -- a fabulous cook and hostess -- doing most of the work and the rest of us bringing side dishes.  It promises to be another different -- but excellent -- Thanksgiving.

Give yourself time to reflect, to grieve and to forgive.  Particularly if loved ones have died or your family has been divided by divorce or disputes, it's normal to feel the loss keenly during the holidays.  Give yourself some private time to cry, to remember and to give thanks for what you did share with these missing ones. And if some loved ones have been estranged, now might be the time to reach out to them, to forgive and reconnect.  

Whether you celebrate the holidays with some empty chairs and old traditions or with creative new ideas, this doesn't mean that your heart won't ache this holiday season. But honoring the holiday traditions these missing loved ones passed on to you, the happy memories you shared and the connection you still feel can make this holiday season very special.

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