The article resonated with me as I remembered our family’s last Thanksgiving celebration, the final holiday we shared with my beloved father nine days before he died. For the past nine years, at every holiday celebration and family dinner I had the seat of honor next to my father. The righthand side of his body was paralyzed from five strokes. One of my duties was to lovingly prepare his plate of food. I picked the perfect piece of turkey with crispy skin, the best sweet potatoes, and the corner piece of corn bread. I also discreetly cut his food in the kitchen to maintain his dignity. He was able feed himself at the table with his left hand.
The Empty Chair
This year, I was aware of the “presence of the absence” as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic master teacher (1772-1810) eloquently captures the ethereal landscape of loss. Many people I know leave an empty chair at the holiday table and invite people to share favorite memories about the person who is physically no longer present.
Clare Ansberry states that families don’t want loved ones to be forgotten. I agree. I was grateful when Aunt Margery said some beautiful words in honor of my father immediately before the meal. Rarely at a loss for words, I was determined to get through the meal and quietly focused on eating my food slowly and with gratitude. One of the things I was most grateful for was the fact that other guests animatedly talked about their hobbies, funny holiday stories, trips and, of course food! I was grateful to listen to interesting conversation and be part of a cozy holiday meal.
Grief is not tidy and orderly.
I never know when I will experience a pang or a sobbing bout or a joyful wave of hilarious memories. The only constant is that there are no rules. Adults who lost a parent in childhood say it takes six years or more to move forward, according to a bereavement survey underwritten by the New York Life Foundation that supports Bereavement programs for grieving children. For most people surveyed, support falls off after about three months.
I have been making my own observations during these few weeks leading up to the holidays as my feelings of grief have swelled to the surface more than over the course of the past year. So when people ask me “How was your Thanksgiving?” or “How are you doing?” instead of defaulting to a remote-control response of “Great, how was your holiday?” I tell them that it’s a tough time. The reactions are fascinating. Most people share a story about the loss of a loved one… or ask me if I’d like to receive a hug. (Of course I would). My authenticity is rewarding me as these beautiful one-on-one encounters create powerful moments of connection.
One of the nicest traditions we’ve adopted over the past year is to share Charlie-isms: hilarious and inspiring stories of things my dad did. Sharing Charlie-isms keeps the memories alive. Here’s my favorite Charlie-ism from Thanksgiving.
“Always remember joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest, it is vital.” ~ Rebbe Nachman, a man who endured many tragedies and deaths in his family
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey. Dad worked six days a week. After work, he always made time to play catch or ride bicycles with my younger brother Gary and me. As the years progressed, we’d go around the block first in our strollers, then walking, on tricycles, and roller skates.
When Gary was eight and I was ten, Dad took us on a top-secret outing that was to commence at midnight. He bundled us up. When he woke us up, we were parked at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. ALL the Thanksgiving Day floats and balloons were being blown up RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES. Dad, Gary and I were the ONLY people who were not part of the parade crew. It took Macy’s 25 years to replicate Charlie’s genius idea.
My grief helps me stay in touch with the feelings of isolation or sadness that most of the Soaringwords children and families experience, and for that I am grateful. My default philosophy is to always choose life. Temporary waves of grief serve to amplify the joy and blessings of each day when the feelings shift.
“This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn-out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
This year, may all of your holidays be authentic.
Ansberry, C. (2017, Dec. 5). A Blue Christmas: Dealing With Loss During the Holidays. Wall Street Journal.
Nachman (2011). The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy—Timeless Wisdom from a Hasidic Master. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.
New York Life, Bereavement Resources.
Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Lisa and her father Charlie courtesy of Lisa Buksbaum
Balloons being blown up courtesy of robert.fitzpatrick8523
Balloon ready for parade courtesy of robert.fitzpatrick8523