11/14/2012 12:37 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Bringing Love Alive During Holidays Challenged by Absence and Loss: 5 Steps

The great mystic Meister Eckhart, has said: "If the only prayer you say in your entire life is 'Thank you,' that would suffice." But what if who and what you wish to thank is not here this holiday season? What if you are left to face some form of empty chair? What then?

Philosophically, absence need not mean the essence of whom we love is not with us. But let's speak plainly. Let's get into our hearts, and out of our heads, and consider, for instance, the small child who wonders where Mommy or Daddy went, the child who cannot understand yet, the requirements the world might be making upon the adult in question. All little one knows is that what comforts their heart is gonzo. We need not be young to experience such hurt.

Causes of vacancy come in endless iterations and are particularly poignant during the holidays. You may be left staring death in the face. Or, perhaps your loss involves a loved one that lives far away and finances are insufficient to bring them to your door. Maybe the empty place at the table comes from a returning veteran struggling with PTSD, leaving them with a certain outer intensity and interior vacancy and everyone else "walking on egg shells." Many have told me privately that their "empty chair" concerns itself with loved ones who are connected to life by a fragile, fraying thread: infirmities of cancer, congestive heart failure, congenital illness, kidney disease, early dementia, mental disorder, addiction, or those devastated by horrific losses due to hurricanes. What about time well spent with these folks who may be present in body but whose spirit is suffering?

How do we raise and praise them? The process involves the following five:

1. Consider revising your way of saying thank you. When the one we are thanking is literally gone, we still have a choice. If they died, we might make a dish or two that they loved in their honor. We might want to make an altar expressing our gratitude with a photograph, candle, and flower. If they are living but gone, we might share a memory with them, about them, for which we are most grateful, and ask what might we do during the holidays that would be most meaningful for them? If they are present, but too distressed to be communicative, perhaps including some of their favorite music, or food, or creature comforts would be a way of acknowledging your gratitude for the essence of whom they are, without taxing their reserves.

2. If the loss is recent, it helps to take private time before and after the holiday as a time of remembrance, so that the wound can be given its due and the healing expedited. Suffering that transforms must be given a place in which to dwell and be embraced. For children, it can be very helpful to make drawings, little sculptures, write stories, or other creative acts to remember and heal.

3. Pruning helps. Yes, pruning! Get your shears out. Transiting through holidays, in troubling times as these, it is only natural to fall unconsciously into holding our breath, tightening our core, hardening our hearts against feeling overly vulnerable or overwhelmed. Become mindful of these tendencies and symptoms! Where there is hurt, we armor, resist, pull back from real and meaningful contact. Doing so, however, deadens our tree of life.

The point of pruning is restoration of life, calling back vitality, forwarding the promise of new blossoming when the season is right. It is hard to find a means of saying thank you when we have gotten stuck in the un-pulled mental weeds of regret, guilt, and anger that crowd out the forgotten seeds of beauty embedded in your heart without adequate space to grow and be creatively expressed.

4. Encourage new life by softening the heart and belly, opening the mind to what is really before us, and frequent repetitions of deep breathing. This means trusting your process. This means, at times, stepping back and leaving space for the possibility that something beautiful can grow through this compost given enough time, space, resources, and guidance. Just like abundant gardens, however, this does not happen overnight. So, neither distance from discomfort nor deny yourself joy when it arises. The latter is both the best medicine and most powerful fuel that keep us going while attending the needs of those not faring as well as hoped. We must get that metaphorical oxygen mask on our own face first if we are at risk.

5. Create, create, and create. Hildegard of Bingen once said: "All of creation is a song of praise to God." I know, I know. What has this to do with reconstructing holidays? Simply put: everything. What has been is gone. What is left is here. Phoenix time: From the ashes of what is absent, we must find a means to soar, even if we don't feel like it, even if soaring looks more like mustering the energy to get up out of a chair. Lower the bar this holiday. Simplify. Forget striving for the Holiday Olympics. We need not aspire to anything ambitious. Stick to the simple. Create from what touches you. Think small, microscopic. A simple container with one violet may be all you need to remember the gift of life and what has been. Who are we to avoid being grateful for what remains? If the sun is out, after a storm, get out there! Take a walk. Do so in the rain. Thank silently, or out loud, if you dare, every single solitary aspect and act of creation that you behold. It is a gift to be appreciated. A grateful heart is the first step in preparing the mental atmosphere for a new blessing to be revealed through the heart, birthed through your life.

6. Begin with thanking life for passing through you. To do so, read the following letter of acknowledgement:

Love Letter

I know it may seem unlikely, and maybe even impossible, to create a meaningful holiday this year within the present conditions and circumstances of your life as is. I know that what you (or someone you love) suffer cannot be easy. How sad it would be to make it worse. We do this, you know, when times are hard. It is only human. How? By allowing a screen to separate you from what gives life, what renews life, what allows joy to arise from your most hidden depths, especially during this difficult time. A very wise master teacher by the name of Lao Tzu put it this way:

"Don't lose your ancient virtue.
Become a newborn child again."

This is the key to the great happiness. Sometimes it is so easy to convince ourselves that no one understands, that we are all alone in our situation, that what matters is gone. But the fact is this is not true. The one you wish were here can still be thanked, if you do so sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Get specific. List every single thing you can recall for which you are grateful for the way life passed through them. Keep doing so until you feel clear and clean inside, until you notice that whatever has been stuck inside your spirit breaks loose and life is flowing through you again. Well done. Now, step back and enjoy, and be astonished. May what you have discovered be a source of renewal and restoration that brings your love alive this holiday as you greet the day with heart and mind wide open for the discovery of delight in the tiniest of moments of simply being present. For you, I am so thankful.

Be the Love,


Your turn: For what are you thankful? I'm listening! Thank you for forwarding this.

A continuing thank you for the ongoing outpouring of support during this period of finding new footing, quite literally. I am most grateful.

Gratitude for your amazing way of embracing The Love Project: Coming Home. It can be a great gift for those you love. A number of readers have decided to use it as a focus in their book clubs, sharing its lessons with others, mutually benefitting.

For more by Dr. Cara Barker, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.