Losing a Loved One: Another Year, Another Empty Chair
I love Thanksgiving. It is my favorite holiday of the entire year. I try to live a life filled with gratitude, and it’s special to have a day set aside for giving thanks – even though I practice it every day.
This year, my estranged daughter will once again not be home. This year was predictably cruel.
Yes, she was coming home. Then she wasn’t. Yes, she wanted to be picked up. No, a friend would drive her.
It’s a familiar dance. She seems to be dancing closer, then veers off into space. We’ve been through it so many times that my heart wearied at the thought of even beginning this iteration of the dance. But I did, because I want her to know she is loved, and it came to a predictable crashing end.
The Empty Chair
Her empty chair used to make me cry for days. There is no pain like the pain of an abandoned parent. I have experienced lots of different kinds of pain in life – deaths, cancer in the family, serious illness and many family problems. But the pain of a mother whose child wants nothing to do with her is unique.
I have cried for years. Sometimes the deep sobbing would leave me debilitated for days.
I hid from family and friends. I felt that others could not understand what I was going through. Some cruel comments and outright rejection confirmed this.
But I have learned to live again.
Learning to Live Again
I’ll be completely honest: It took therapy and hard work. It took more crying and learning to let go. It took accepting that there were things I could not change, that I had no control over. And it took looking up and away from the empty chair to shift my gaze to all the blessings that remained.
When facing this situation, we have a choice. We can wallow in our sorrow and allow our child’s cruelty to destroy us. Or we can pick ourselves up and live a good life beyond the pain.
In this life, we will have pain. We’re human. We can’t escape it. The task of life is to live with the pain and live beyond the pain because we can’t escape the pain. The triumph of life is to live well in spite of the pain.
The holiday season is just beginning. How can you live it well?
Be prepared for your own emotional slump
The holidays can be a triggering time. You will feel the loss of your child. Let yourself feel it, but not get lost in it.
Honor your memories, but don’t be a slave to them
Families are filled with memories and hopefully you have many good ones. Memories honor the past. They do not have to define the future. Just because you always did something one way does not mean you need to always do things that way.
Think about some new things you can to do celebrate the holiday:
- Go out to a nice dinner instead of cooking;
- Volunteer somewhere for part of the day;
- Start new traditions, like going to the movies or playing new board games.
Enjoy what you have instead of what you’ve lost
Keep yourself focused on the present moment and enjoy the people who are with you. Enter fully into conversations and be present for the other person, instead of letting your mind ruminate over your loss.
Be kind to yourself
If you know you will have an emotional time, take extra good care of yourself. Can you take a day to pamper yourself before facing parties and events? Can you say no to tasks or activities that drain you?
Move the Chair
For yet another year, my daughter’s chair will be empty. But this time I have decided to move the chair to another room. What will remain around my table will have my full attention. I will focus on the love I have rather than the love I lost.
My daughter knows the door will always be open. She knows that the chair can always be brought back to the table. But she also knows that the chasing, begging, pleading, bargaining and haranguing are over. The ball is in her court.
I will look up occasionally to see if she is lobbing the ball back to me. But unless and until she does, the party will go on, and I will be fully present for it. And I will be grateful for the time I had with her. And I will be grateful for the healing I have claimed from her.
If you are a parent of an estranged adult child, I invite you to connect with like-minded parents at the Facebook group, Parents of Estranged Adult Children. We get it and will warmly welcome you.
Are you facing an empty chair in your family celebrations this year? How have you learned to cope with this? What strategies have you developed? Please join the conversation below.