An Empty Chair, or Not

thanksgiving-table-1-copyShe slowly and robotically began setting the Thanksgiving table.  No joy or happiness could be found in the plans and preparations for this once anticipated holiday.  Sorrow and emotional suffering were her constant companions.  How would she get through this?  How would her husband make it?  Without their son, Robbie, how could they step into Thanksgiving and survive?

This year would be different, just the closest of their family was gathering.  She was asked only to set the table. The rest of the family would bring the traditional menu.  Right now, she is sure that making gravy would have been easier on her than setting the table.  Robbie would not be sitting with them.  What should she do?   Set his place or not.  The tears wouldn’t stop.

The Accident

The car accident that had taken his life was still fresh.  It was less than two months ago that they saw their son off to college, never to return home again.  Raw were their emotions and overwhelmed were their hearts.

A Phone Call

She stopped and gave me a call.  I listened as she wept and found words for her pain.  “Do I leave an empty chair or take it away?  Karen, what should I do?”


Together, we explored a variety of options.  She could leave the chair and set Robbie’s place.  She could set only for those who were attending.  Either way, the important thing would be to remember Robbie somehow as they shared this Thanksgiving, surrounded by a supportive and mourning family.   We considered that everyone would be feeling Robbie’s absence and that acknowledging the pain and the sadness would be honest.  Nothing is to be gained by pretending away our sorrow.  It would be important for her and or her husband to give the rest of the family permission to talk about Robbie.

If she set a place at the table for Robbie, they could each take turns expressing their gratitude about who he was and share a special memory.  They could each write a short “Good bye” note to Robbie and place it on his plate.  Tears would be welcomed. Each of them would benefit from hearing stories of how important Robbie was to the extended family members.  As part of the blessing over the meal, each one around the table could say a sentence of gratitude for Robbie’s life characteristics.

If she chose not to set a place at the table for Robbie, they could still incorporate the things they would do if the place had been set.  The important choice is to remember Robbie during this family Thanksgiving gathering.  Fixing his favorite recipes, telling stories about him, looking through photo albums, or digital pictures, participating in his favorite Thanksgiving activities and allowing freedom for each one present to remember Robbie in their own way would all contribute to healthy grieving.

We talked about the importance of tears.  She was willing to take the lead and remind her family that tears are healing and welcome at her home.  She even laughed a bit, telling me she would incorporate tissue boxes into the decorations.

Healthy Grief is Hard Work

As we neared the end of our phone conversation, I reminded her that healthy grief is hard work.  It is intentional work.  Making healthy choices about her grief would create a path towards authentic healing. When it feels overwhelming, and she can’t find the strength to continue, I encouraged her to let the reality of God’s love, grace, mercy, and understanding carry her through.  I suggested that she invite God to the table and trust He will faithfully be present to comfort and to heal.

“I know you will have a special Thanksgiving.” I said. “ While it might not be happy, it will be honest and healing.”


©Karen Nicola Nov. 2016




  1. Paul Coneff

    Beautifully honest and authentic, genuine and sensitive.

  2. pageturnerbooks

    He passed away the 1st of November (my birthday). Just another day to be remembered with a slice of pain. I can’t even remember the last time I was at the same place for thanksgiving that he was. I stood outside his home one last time as I had in the past looking in not going in. It was never my home. The man who passed away was the same one who said things like , I will kill you, pretend as if you never were (not hard). Yep that was my Dad. Four years ago he accidentally arrived where I was and sat wth his wife of 34 years and said he was sorry. And though it wasn’t for everything it still changed things. Somehow my heart that knew better than to hope wanted to hope again; it shouldn’t have; I knew better but it did without my consent so today my heart hurts. I have no idea why I want to cry. It wasn’t like he was a father to me. Listening at the funeral to all the kind words- I didn’t know that person. I never met him except that one short time 4 years ago. And today in the secret of my bathroom I cry.

    • Karen Nicola/Author, speaker, grief coach, & friend to the bereaved

      While the man you refer to participated in bringing you into this world, you are right, he wasn’t a father to you. Is it possible that your heart breaks for all you didn’t have? Finding a healthy grieving path when someone important, but not loved by us dies is very challenging. Your secret tears in the bathroom are your body’s way of speaking to you to release the pain, the anger, the fear, the remorse and regrets. I pray that you will lean into the loss and sorrow and also lean heavy into the comforting arms of your real and forever Father, God. By the way, He has no resemblance to the man your described above. If you’d like extra guidance, please consider purchasing one of my books, Comfort for the Day to support you as you heal. Karen

  3. Ardis McPherson

    Hi Karen, thank you for this!


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