The Empty Chair - Grieving and the Holidays

"The field of elder law is extremely rewarding in so many ways," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "But on occasion, we are reminded about the reality of some of the work we do, and this hits hardest during the holiday season." And one of the realities that Attorney Connelly refers to is coping with the grief of losing a loved one.

"Dealing with the loss of a loved one is never easy at any time of the year," stated Attorney Connelly. "But for someone attempting to cope during the holiday season can be especially painful when the sights and sounds of the season elicit pleasant and loving memories of the one you lost. And there is nothing more heartbreaking than the empty chair at the family table."

Grieving a loss is, without a doubt, an extremely painful and deeply personal experience as the waves of emotions can, at times, become overwhelming. During the holiday season, as everyone else around you goes about their business of shopping, family gatherings, and parties, the memories of your loved one seem to be triggered at every turn and you feel alone -- very alone. You may feel numb or can't sleep, not wanting company or people around you. You could become angry or burst into tears for seemingly no reason at all. These are some of the natural grief responses people feel, all of which are exacerbated during this time of year.

Grief takes no holidays.

A family that we came to know well lost their father in early November a few short years ago. The widow, her son, and daughter had come in to speak to Attorney Connelly about a probate matter but the conversation quickly turned to their loss and the holidays – and how Christmas has not been the same without their father.

“My dad was not a big guy, yet he seemed larger than life in so many ways,” said his senior son Tom. “He went through the Korean War and did a tour of Vietnam, so he seemed invincible to us. When he came back in the late ’60s, he couldn’t wait to get back to his job in Newport. He loved that city and every Christmas season he would gather us up and we would take a ride through the city to see the holiday lights. Then there was a department store he would take us to for a visit with Santa Claus. We would walk out with a candy cane with Dad telling us to behave ourselves.”

“But what really excited him was when they started decorating the mansions and opening them up for the public. We would go every year, sometimes twice. I remember how beautiful they were,” Tom continued. “And every year, we would hear the same stories about the owners of the mansions and how they took advantage of their workers. He would call them gluttons and then end his speech with the same words – ‘they were so rich, yet so very poor’. I guess he fashioned himself a philosopher.”

“That was how he was,” added Gloria, his widow in her eighties. “He was always looking out for the regular guy. He hated seeing someone take advantage of another because of where they happened to be at that time in their lives. Every Christmas, he would drop off clothes and shaving supplies at the Salvation Army for the guys who had things tough. That kind of thing was so important to him, right up to the end.”

Grieving during the holidays can be especially difficult

“When he died just before Thanksgiving, I think we all were devastated,” said his daughter Cheryl. “He struggled with dementia for years and we thought that we had prepared ourselves for his passing, but it hit us as if we had no idea it was coming. I mean, it has left such a hole, and seeing the Christmas lights, well, it’s just hard, it never gets easier.”

“To experience the holiday without the one person who made Christmas come alive for our family is just tough, very tough,” said Tom. “I guess our hearts are just broken.”

"This family's sadness is not unique as thousands of families experience a devastating loss just before or during the holiday season," said Attorney Connelly. "Dealing with the death of a loved one is difficult at any time but when it happens at this time of year, the grief is compounded. Whether it’s a sudden heart attack or an "expected" passing, the loss of that person changes the way the family observes the holidays for years to come."

"It's really tough, here are the holidays and yet, the family's emotions are raw and random. One moment sad and pensive, the next, feeling completely numb. There are times of confusion, anger, and even disbelief..." ---Attorney RJ Connelly III

As for the family we mentioned earlier, Gloria and her husband were together for over half a century before his death. Imagine, over fifty Christmases as a couple -- with and without the children – had come to an end. How are they to cope?

Emotions can bubble to the surface

"It's really tough, here are the holidays and yet, a family's emotions are still raw and unpredictable. One moment sad and pensive, the next, feeling completely numb. There are times of confusion, anger, and even disbelief," pointed out Attorney Connelly. "Holiday visitors don't know what to say or how to broach this sudden loss in conversation, the bereaved try to hold back tears as these random emotions bubble to the surface without warning. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable time for everyone."

The Bereaved Individual

Within the family, the children know it's Christmas but something just doesn't seem right with Grandma and the other adults in the house. "The kids feel loss a bit differently, feeling from a safety perspective," said Attorney Connelly. "For them, the adults in the house who always felt strong and protective to them appear to be so weak and vulnerable. Not only do they miss their loved one, but they also feel the insecurity of those who are still present." Like all things, however, people and families evolve as do the holiday traditions without their loved ones in attendance. So just how do you get through the season? Here are some suggestions to assist in that task.

Grieve Your Way - On Your Terms

Everyone grieves in their own way and on their own time, so don't allow someone else to dictate how your grieving should occur or how long it should take. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling sadness during Christmas especially at a family affair where that empty chair now sits or a family tradition is practiced without your loved one," said Attorney Connelly. "It is especially difficult during the first year and perhaps even in subsequent years."

And don’t believe the well-wisher who says there will be “closure”. There is no closure, and why would there be? There is acceptance and then life goes on. Your loved one will always have a special place in your heart and mind – that space is never closed. That’s what makes memories worth celebrating and traditions worth remembering.

And don't believe the well-wishers who say there will be "closure". There is no closure, and why would there be? There is acceptance, and then life goes on. Your loved one will always have a special place in your heart and mind -- that space is never closed.

Know What You Really Want

Maybe getting together for a party is not what you need right now. Perhaps being alone is not the answer either. Think about what you want – this is not the time to consider the feelings of others. Don’t let anyone try to talk you into something you are not ready for. Once you make your decision, speak with your family or friends and let them know why you made your choice. Remember, whether you are alone or with others, grief is a process that you need to go through.

Try to follow a familiar routine

Stay Healthy

Beating yourself up over the fact that a loss has occurred or refusing to eat or sleep does not make things any better and can create additional stress on other family members who are now worrying about you. Following as normal a routine as possible helps in keeping some semblance of normalcy during a chaotic situation. This is especially important in the age of the coronavirus.

The Christmas Dinner

Your house has always been the holiday gathering place for the family, so should it go on during a time like this? You may want to rethink it. Do you really need the stress of planning a menu, se