The Empty Chair at the Table
This weekend was tragic for my community. If you’re a parent of a middle school child in my area, you are holding your kids just a little bit tighter and whispering “I love you” just a little more frequently.
Late last Friday afternoon, my phone buzzed, indicating that I had an email waiting. It was a note from my daughter’s principal, sharing the tragic news that a seventh grade girl had taken her life. The reasons for this tragedy are not one-hundred percent certain, but the fact remains: The life of a beautiful, lovely girl with a world of possibility before her is now gone. This girl’s name was Olivia.*
Though I didn’t personally know Olivia or her family, my daughter took the bus with her and knows where she lived. In fact, my kids stopped at her house for Halloween this year and vividly remember receiving one of their favorite Halloween treats, a caramel-coated popcorn ball, from two smiling girls (obviously sisters) at the front door. They remember a happy family, two friendly dogs, and a home whimsically decorated for the season.
Christ’s presence offers deep peace when we don’t have the strength to carry our burdens.
From the street, Olivia’s home is lovely. It sits majestically on a wooded lot, overlooking a serene lake which offers views reserved only for the likes of Better Homes & Gardens. But, today, the thought occurred to me that, despite the brilliant views this family is graced with, the only view they now pine for is the face of their baby girl. Death is so final.
All of us have loved ones who are no longer with us. And our awareness of their absence is only heightened during the holidays. As we set our tables and scurry about with holiday preparations, the empty chair is such an elicit trigger. It sends many of us into grief and, sometimes, deep despair at precisely the time of year when the world sings about joy and hope.
I am no bereavement counselor, nor am I an expert on grief support, but I do know what it is like to experience Christmas as a lifeless zombie. I know what it is like to watch an entire family, like Olivia’s, wake-up, breathe, eat, and sleep having lived another day but experiencing no life at all.
When I was 13, my 19-year-old brother, Michael, committed suicide. That day was October 29, 1983, and I will never forget it, particularly our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. And so, the empty chair found its place at our family table. More recently, my father succumbed to his battle with renal cancer on March 30, 2012. Now, there sit two empty chairs, once symbols of community and laughter, now painfully reminding us of the frailty of life.
So, how do we deal with these very raw emotions that accompany loss, as they are juxtaposed with “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? How do we grieve well? Will the pain ever go away? Will we ever experience joy again?
At the risk of sounding trite, Scripture always has the best answers. I’d like to share three promises that continue to help me find hope during the holidays:
1. God is with us.
During the Christmas season, we often hear the familiar hymn “O Come, O Come, Immanuel,” sung as a reminder of God’s promise to send a Savior. Jesus is named three times in Scripture as “Immanuel” (meaning God with us). Like a quiet friend who sits with us in the midst of our trials, Christ’s presence with us offers great solace on days when we don’t have the strength to carry our burdens alone.
The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). (Isaiah 7:14)
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
2. All things are temporal.
Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, son of King David and arguably the wisest man who ever lived. This particular chapter is remarkable because it clearly defines a set time for all things under the sun. More specifically, Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 speaks to those of us who have endured great loss. In Solomon’s wisdom, he tells us that we must not remain downcast. While a time to mourn is essential, we have permission and reason to experience joy again!
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
3. Jesus has overcome sin and death.
The powers of the world, the realm controlled by Satan, was defeated when Jesus was crucified at Calvary. He broke and defeated the power of sin and death: cancer deteriorating a body, suicidal thoughts, and aging’s effects. He brought life and immortality to light. He ensured that death would not have the final say.
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
If you are reading this article, your heart might be aching at the thought of facing another holiday and another empty chair. Believe me, I understand.
To lift your soul, I’d like to share a very personal song that I wrote about remembering that there is hope in tragedy. This song is titled “After,” and is meant to remind us in the middle of sorrows and trials that we can take heart and have peace, not because things are easy, but because the hard things of this life are fleeting. Our peace is not in the absence of strife or troubles but in Jesus and what he has overcome to make our future sure.
*Name has been changed out of respect for the family.