I didn’t know an empty seat could be so loud.
As we all barrel towards this holiday season gathering expectations and desires and visions for the “perfect” celebration like snowballs picking up leaves and twigs and rock and dirt as they roll down a hill, I find myself longing to veer off. To pull away and stop. I told my husband last night that I sort of wish I could hibernate through the holiday seasons; it feels like it might be easier.
Because as much as I try to stay fully present in the moment… as much as I try to enjoy the magic of holidays with little ones… as much as I try to be grateful for all the loving family and friends I’m surrounded by… I cannot seem to outrun the truth I’ve discovered these last few years: the empty seat speaks the loudest.
It’s been years since I’ve stepped foot in my childhood home; years since I sat around my mother’s table; years since I’ve eaten a meal off her wedding china. It’s been years since I’ve seen or talked to either of my parents. Somehow when the holidays roll around, the reality of my memories soften and I start to question the decisions I’ve made. I forget the why that led me to this place and only see my weakness. “Maybe a stronger, kinder, more forgiving daughter would give them another chance,” the critical voice in my head says.
But I’m learning to recognize that voice as one full of lies and I’m practicing refocusing my eyes back on the truth. I am strong. I am kind. I do forgive. Boundaries are excruciating at times, but in absence of any changes, they remain necessary.
Because the truth is, it’s also been years since I’ve felt the direct sting of my parents’ berating accusations. It’s been years since I’ve traded angry words with them, my own anger and frustration rising in concert with theirs. It’s been years since I formulated a plan for how I could navigate the minefield of a dinner or a weekend at their home and protect my own heart and my children without setting one of them off. It’s been years since I’ve felt the anxiety and fear surrounding an interaction with them.
I’ve not sat at that table for years for very specific reasons, and none of them have changed. And yet the table – and my empty seat at it – still haunts me.
This isn’t something I like about myself. I don’t want to be sitting at one Thanksgiving table and wishing I could also visit another. I love Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and in some ways my internal tension feels disloyal to them. I love hanging out with my sisters-in-law and watching our children pretend to be wolves in the backyard. I love seeing my husband and his brothers in the kitchen with his Mom and Dad. (How many McKeans does it take to carve a turkey? At least 4.) The food is delicious; the company is better, and I wish that it could be enough for me. But here I am, two days before the holiday, and I’m filled with equal parts anticipation and dread. I’m eager to be with all of them and I’m dreading those moments when I know the reality of what I don’t have will clang in my head like a relentless cymbal in an empty room. When, if I’m not careful, the ache of what I’m missing will trigger a landslide of other toxic and untrue thought-patterns: “This isn’t really your family, Carrie. You’re an outsider at this table. You’re only here because your husband is here; they don’t really love you for you.”
It’s a strange thing to be aching so much on the inside and smiling on the outside; to be sitting around a full table and thinking about an empty one. Last night I found myself wondering if I could give my children the holiday memories I want them to have – joyous, full, and vibrant; rich in family and love and connection – when I feel like I’m bereft, crippled by loss, and more than a little empty?
But here I am this morning, and as the sun slides up and chases out the darkness of the night, my littlest girl curls up beside me on the couch and unexpectedly asks: “Mama, are they really getting ready for bed right now in China?” Yes, I whisper. She grows silent as she tries to understand how it can be both light and dark in the same moment on the same planet.
And her question and her wonder hangs in the silence; a gift to me in my own struggle. Because the simple-yet-astonishing truth is this: darkness and light always co-exist in the same moment. Sun and moon. Grief and joy. Loss and gain. Laughter and tears. Gratitude and longing.
(It’s also true that holding conflicting emotions at the same time is painfully difficult. I know I’m not the only one who wishes she could “pick a side” and stop feeling whatever’s on the other side of the coin. It is enough to make a girl want to hibernate.)
But maybe there’s a gift in this, too. Maybe I feel more alive when I feel… when I feel the ache of loss and two minutes later am laughing at my daughters and nieces and nephews and their howling wolf-pack. Maybe feeling both helps me make space for others and all their complexity of feelings. After all, if I know what it’s like to feel both grateful for the family I do have and also the profound loss of the empty chairs, how could I someday be resentful if my own adopted daughter feels a similar pull between me and the mother who gave her life? Or how could I forget to give my sister-in-law Jane an extra hug on Thanksgiving morning and tell her I miss her gone-too-soon dad and his larger-than-life laugh, too?
I’m not the only one who is facing a holiday with a very loud empty chair. And for years now, I’ve been wanting to silence its aching roar, to numb myself, to hibernate. Maybe you’ve been feeling the same way. This isn’t my first holiday-post-loss-rodeo, and I’m here to say that my method of grin-and-bear-it combined with shaming myself for not doing better hasn’t worked the last few years. I end the season emotionally drained, physically sick, and grateful for January. I don’t recommend this method if you’re new to holiday loss.
But what if we were gentler with ourselves this year? What if we forgive ourselves for the moments when we feel jubilant, even if it’s our first Thanksgiving without Dad or Mom or the husband who was taken too soon? What if we’re kinder with ourselves during the moments when we are sitting at a full and loving table and our eyes burn with tears for the one who is missing? What if we stop apologizing for how we’re feeling, stop “shoulding” on ourselves, and stop worrying what others will think? What if we pay attention to those we are gathered with – thinking about their stories and their journeys and what empty chairs might be looming in their life? What if we reach out and let them know we see them and love them in all their complexity, too?
What if we make space for both the darkness and light and hold them both tenderly, recognizing that it’s the mixture of both that makes us feel fully alive. Maybe then we can make peace with those empty chairs; they may still be empty, but perhaps they won’t roar so loudly.