Disheveled Theologian: The empty chair — facing loss in the holidays

O'Donnell Gretchen

Empty chairs. Dusty toothbrushes. That gift, bought early as the perfect surprise, stashed away and now uncovered, unneeded because the recipient is no longer with us.

Over and over, in a year of multiple, unthinkable losses in our community and region, this scenario has been repeated. And now: the first Thanksgiving without them. The first Christmas. The turning of a new year without their beloved presence filling those empty chairs.

Please understand: I have not been directly impacted by these deaths, however, as a firm believer that “any man’s death diminishes me” (John Donne) and having been asked by one who was directly impacted to offer some hope in this season of firsts, I have prayed and given this to God.

How do we observe a holiday in which we are supposed to give thanks when in the midst of such grief? How do we celebrate and rejoice in Christmas when our arms are empty?

When everything is wrong, how can the new be right?


I turned 4 three days before my grandfather died. He was an evangelist and was giving a sermon on a Sunday morning to a small congregation in British Columbia, Canada, when he had a heart attack and died. The phone call to my mom, informing her of what had happened, is one of my earliest memories.

That summer, Grandma died during open heart surgery. I don’t remember that phone call. What I do remember is that Christmas. The first year without Grandma and Grandpa living across the street. The first year that my mom didn’t have either parent. That first year their long, red, stretchy stockings weren’t hung by the chimney with care.

I remember because of what happened in their absence.

My mom fell apart.

Mom: Strong. Busy. Capable. God-fearing. Bible-believing. Holder-in-of-a-year’s-worth-of-grief.

I don’t know what triggered it. I probably didn’t help. The stress of the holidays probably didn’t help, either. Perhaps, as the ornaments were unpacked and hung upon the tree for all to see, the memories were too much. Those memories, packed up the year before, now unveiled without the people who helped create them.

It didn’t last long, Mom’s brokenness. She knew it was coming, and she escaped the house. Hurried over to the neighbor’s deck, sat on the forlorn summer furniture at the house closed up for winter, and cried and cried and cried.

I was oblivious to her sadness. I just knew that I couldn’t find her when I wanted her. She came back, maybe half an hour later, maybe more, and life went on. It wasn’t until years later that she told me what she’d done in that time away. In her moment of brokenness. In that season of firsts without her parents. That season of two new empty chairs.


She’d wept out a year’s worth of sorrow.

When everything is wrong, how can the new be right?

The truth is, it will never be quite right again. The puzzle piece is missing. But what remains: the people we love complete with the hole of the empty chair — can be redeemed.

A skewed but lovely picture of healing can emerge. An empty chair acknowledged but not dominating. A family made whole despite the hole. And it happens best — and most wholly — by the graceful presence of God. His presence, full of grace. His presence. His grace.

When we bring God into our healing, when we ask him to be the center of our lives even before we need healing, only then do we know that he is also the center of our after-lives. If we have done that — if the people we love and miss have done that — then, when that empty chair stares at us around the Thanksgiving table, we can know – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that the occupant of that chair is celebrating the season with Jesus this year, and every year, forever and ever, and that one day we will join them and celebrate together once again.

Yes, this season of firsts without those we love is hard. We may weep. We may break, for a time. We may shout at God and shake our fists. But he is strong. He can take it. He will hold your hand as you sit in that empty chair and weep a year’s worth of sorrow.

“‘Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.’ You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever.’” Psalm 30:10-12 NIV

Please note: There are two “Blue Christmas” services being offered in town this year. These services, also known as “Longest Night” are open to the public and offer a chance to acknowledge, remember, grieve and honor those we have lost. First United Methodist Church (408 11th St., Worthington) will host a service on December 6th at 6 p.m. and American Lutheran Church (915 Winifred, Worthington) will host at 5 p.m. Dec. 22.


Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is .

Related Topics: FAITH
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