Q: The worst part about the holidays is the empty chair at the table where our son used to sit. He died two years ago. What can we do?
A: “The most important action is not to ignore the empty chair or your grief. The chair in its own way demands recognition,” says Luann McBride, an Olympia chaplain.
“There needs to be purposeful meaning around the empty chair and that meaning (needs to be) expressed,” McBride says.
You can put something in the chair to remember and honor your child, such as a toy or favorite stuffed animal or a symbol of his life, like a soccer ball or music trophy, McBride says.
You may want to have family members and holiday guests take turns sitting in the chair where they can tell stories or share their happy memories of your son.
Some who grieve claim they will simply keep really busy – ignoring the empty chair – during the holidays, but it is impossible to keep busy enough to keep the grief from creeping in.
In “A Grief Observed” author C.S. Lewis writes: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
Your grief may be intensified during the holidays – an expected response to a profound loss – and manifested through physical symptoms, as Lewis describes. If you choose to embrace the grief, you can better control how you will manage your feelings and lessen the chance of being blindsided by them.
Include your family when deciding how to honor your son and respect each person’s grief journey. What you may believe is a wonderful activity, might actually compound another person’s grief. Be inclusive in the decisions.
If the thought of spending the actual holiday talking about your son is too overwhelming for one of you, plan another time when you can honor your son.
In the weeks before Christmas many churches, grief support groups or hospice agencies offer services that honor deceased loved ones. When you set aside a specific time for remembering your child, you may be able to move into the holidays with a lighter heart, McBride says.
When you remember your beloved son through simple rituals or stories, many feelings will stir, but ultimately the experience will provide a sense of intimacy for your family and honor the child you lost.
Q: A woman I see once a year at a planning meeting for a community event has just been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. I really like and respect her, and I want to show support during the next year as she undergoes treatments.
If I were part of her family, or a good friend, I’d know what to do. But I’m at a loss here as to an appropriate response.
A: You might be surprised how a cancer diagnosis can change friendships. Tess Taft of Spokane, who has been an oncology counselor for 32 years, says cancer survivors often tell her: “You really find out who your friends are.”
Good friends sometimes “step back and disappear,” says Taft, manager of Cancer Care Northwest’s counseling and stress management department.
They just can’t handle it, or they choose not to handle it.
And sometimes acquaintances step forward and show amazing support, opening the way to deepen a superficial relationship.
So don’t be afraid to show support, despite what you perceive as your status in her friendship paradigm. That paradigm is shifting already.
“Cancer is such a deep wound,” Taft says. “It impacts body, mind and soul. The woman’s body will be different, and she will be thinking differently. She will be finding a new normal.”
After Catherine Johnston’s breast cancer surgery, her heroes became some co-workers who came to the house when she was so sad she could not eat for days. They brought food, sat at the table, cut up the food and fed her. The next day they returned with their nurse-practitioner friend who diagnosed Catherine’s sadness as medication-induced.
Catherine says now that doctors cured her cancer, and her friends saved her life.
Cards, phone calls and other gestures of support are especially needed along predictable “crisis points,” in the cancer journey, Taft says.
These include right after a diagnosis, when starting treatment, midway through the treatment when energy gets depleted and when treatment finally ends and “all the soldiers go back home,” as Taft puts it.
Healing demands an element of mystery. Do not hesitate to enter into that mystery, no matter your relationship.
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