THE BLOG
11/22/2016 11:49 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2017

For Anyone with an Empty Seat at the Table this Year

Every single year at this time, I think about Thanksgiving week 2001- how it had been 10 weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks. It had been 72 days since we had seen my brother-in-law John, heard his voice, or sat at a table with him. The days leading up to that Thanksgiving Day seemed to be drenched in thick molasses. We had managed getting cornstalks and 4 pumpkins onto my sister Maryanne's front steps, one for each of her kids. We had managed costumes and a fun night of trick or treating, mostly due to my brother flying in from Chicago and showing up in a form fitting Super Man suit.
There is something about the holidays that causes us to expect our loved ones to come through the door regardless of how long they have been gone. Maybe this is due to cellular memory triggered by things like scents, the changing weather and the feel of anticipation in the air, causing us to believe it's possible. As Thanksgiving week of 2001 approached, and traffic increased in town, a part of my brain still went to, "Well, surely John will be here for Thanksgiving... How can he miss Thanksgiving?? How can we have turkey with out John?" He had been at our family table every year since I was eight years old. I had no memories of a Thanksgiving without John Farrell.
The bottom line is, it seems impossible for it to be a holiday when someone you love, and is part of the fabric of your life, is gone. This is why at Heartworks, the kindness foundation I created In my brother-in-law's name, we do whatever we can to make the first holiday during illness or death as manageable as possible. If cooking is healing for someone, but they can't get themselves to the store, we do the shopping for them. If the thought of doing the dishes feels too much, then we bring people beautiful paper products (I am a full blown paper product snob so I insist on colorful turkeys plates with big lush napkins, sturdy table clothes and gorgeous centerpieces!) We deliver breakfast to help give some direction first thing that morning, cook full dinners or give a gift card to go out, knowing that sometimes it is simply too painful to be home. After having been through a Thanksgiving in which we were at the mercy of God and the kindness of other people, I simply can't sit at my table until I have done for others what was done for us during our impossible first year.

Here are suggestions that my family has done. I hope these will help with Thanksgiving this year if someone you love will not be at the table or is too sick to carry out your regular traditions.

~ Do whatever works for you in terms of the day. If you need to stay in bed and eat a cheeseburger, stay in bed and eat a cheeseburger. You can have turkey and stuffing next year.

~ If there are children and other family members to consider (making bed and the cheeseburger a non-option), try lighting a candle as a symbol of the person you are missing. We lit a candle that first year, as soon as we woke up and it helped more than you would think it would. We needed to acknowledge the struggle, light the candle, say, "Happy Thanksgiving, John." The candle made it easier to move around the kitchen in preparation for dinner. The candle came with us into the family room to watch football, back to the kitchen to check on the bird and eventually to the table. The candle allowed us to be sacred in our experience of this first Thanksgiving, and yet, at the same time do what needed to be done in order to have as normal as a day as possible for my nieces and nephews.

~ Give yourself time before other people wake up or arrive at your door to have sacred space with your person. My father passed away very unexpectedly in 2005. If you drive by my house early any holiday morning, you will see me outside in my pajamas with bed head in full force, crying and hugging the tree Heartworks planted for my father. I create my quiet time with him before the chaos of the day begins. Every holiday before I speak a word to another human being, I am out there in my yard, hugging that tree. It helps. And if it feels too scary to spend time alone, ask a trusted person to do it with you. I have found in over 20 years of counseling people through grief that it does not help to try and avoid the tears.... it is better to create a set time to have the cry and then carry through with the rest of the day.

~ When someone who loves you offers you help, just say yes. Last year one of my besties, in treatment for breast cancer, wouldn't let me come over and vacuum for her the day before Thanksgiving. Don't do things like this. It keeps God at bay. Just say yes to any help that comes at you. Help coming at you is God coming at you... even in the form of vacuuming.

~ Don't be afraid to break (or keep) traditions. If you need to go to the movies and forget it's Thanksgiving, then go to the movies and forget it's Thanksgiving. This may not be what your mom needs or your uncle needs, but if it's what YOU need, make it happen.

~ Place items on the person's empty seat with things that remind you of the person. That first Thanksgiving, we filled John's seat with lots of things, like the kid's school projects, a Whoopee cushion, and a football. The most vivid item in my memory is the tackle box that my nephew Patrick, (9 at the time) bought as he waited for word from his dad. He wanted to give it to his dad when he came home. So now it sat on John's empty chair for Thanksgiving dinner.

~ Fill the days leading up to the holiday with prayer. Pray non-stop all day. Ask your friends, church, book club and anyone else you can think of to pray for you as well. Fifteen years ago my family received prayers from all over the world. In my sister's house, in the weeks following the attack, when I closed my eyes at night, I was grateful for each and every prayer that got us through another day.

~ And finally, know that the day will come to a close, and you will have lived through it. Know that you will not be alone in your struggle and that you are surrounded by love.

I share these ideas in an attempt to help anyone who has an incomplete table this year. For everyone who does have a full table, let's honor the worry and grief of others. Let's take nothing for granted. Let's not get caught up in preparations. Let's pray throughout the day for families not having an easy go of it this year.