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Facing Empty Chairs at the Holiday Table During COVID-19

Many will be missed during the holidays due to the pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Gene Beresin
In memory of Tony Davenport, a dear college friend of Gene's who died in 2004
Source: Photo courtesy of Gene Beresin

Co-author: Steve Schlozman

Through the years we all will be together,
If the fates allow…

— from “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

Here we are in the holiday season. It’s inescapable.

But this year is different, strikingly different. We are not walking into stores, or browsing around in malls and tolerating the same holiday music, repeatedly. Most of us are home-bound and facing an unprecedented pandemic. Instead of high spirits and prospects of reuniting for the holidays, we face isolation. The many emails or cards say, “Hope you are well,” and, “Stay safe.” And sadly, this year we will not be all together, bringing on a special kind of seasonal pain: accentuated absences of family gatherings.

Yes, this year carries with it an obvious added burden—a worldwide pandemic, which hasn’t happened on this Earth in more than a hundred years.

Think about that. A hundred years! That’s an important number to keep in mind. It tells us that we are going through all of this with virtually no roadmap. Words like “unprecedented” and “extraordinary,” at least regarding the twisted road of this virus, are fast-approaching clichés. But the danger of clichés is that we start to take them for granted. Let’s not do that this year. Let’s take nothing for granted.

More people than ever are missing at the table. More chairs are forever empty. Over 250,000 people have passed away due to the virus alone. There will certainly be more by the time we reach the winter holidays. Then, there are those who simply cannot travel, those we cannot be with in an effort to stay safe – those loved ones whose presence we will toast over Zoom or by phone instead of side-by-side by the fire. Any virus, this virus, boasts no nostalgic reverie.

Can we, in the midst of such heart-aching absence, still maintain our holiday cheer? The songs of the season don’t really give us instructions or light the path forward. The feelings of sadness and loss can be intense. So, there are a few things to keep in mind.

While it makes sense that we ache with a yearning for happiness of times gone by and for the loved ones we miss, this need not be a bad thing. Revisiting times of togetherness through memories maintains our connection with the past. It reminds us of the bonds we feel for those who were – and are – important in our lives. It can be therapeutic to talk about the times we spent with those who are absent: recalling a father’s jokes, a grandparent’s laugh, the pranks of a sibling.

Remember, too, that even before the pandemic, many of us lived through other forms of sadness or loss during the holidays. Families change and move away. Kids grow up. Steve still recalls his mother’s muted tone when he explained to her the proposed schedule for Thanksgiving and the holidays for him and his wife. She understood. So it went without saying that rituals would change, that old traditions would fade. Even if the end of every tradition is, in essence, the start of a new one, it doesn’t mean we don’t long for what’s lost.

In Gene’s family, when a candle is lit every Hanukkah, each family member takes a turn to remember a person (or even a pet) who has died. No tears are shed; just a light for someone still loved. It feels right, and it is spiritually uplifting.

One day, the pandemic will end. Good cheer will return and persevere. We’ll be able to see our loved ones again. The virus will at some point fade into the night.

The only thing more contagious than the virus is despair. As humans, we have a long history of holding despair at just the right distance. That is the most important task we have this holiday season.

So, this year, do yourself a favor. Raise that glass for those who are no longer on this earth, and raise it again for those who are temporarily, however painfully, simply not sitting next to us at our tables. They are still sitting with us, in our hearts. There will be bread to be broken together soon enough.

This. Will. Pass.

It will not be easy, but we hope you find creative ways to enjoy the holidays despite the current limitations. Improvise. Find ways to connect. Find ways to boost the spirits of those whom you love. Look for the light and you will find it!

Happy holidays, everyone.

A version of this post also appeared and was written by the authors (Beresin and Schlozman) on WBUR’s CommonHealth. Another version was recently posted by the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

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