The empty place setting
Here's how to deal with loss of a family member over the festive season.
You can’t escape it, no matter what your religious beliefs. At this time of year schools, shops and workplaces are full of reminders that it’s Christmas. For many it’s a time of feverish planning to entertain friends and extended families, but for some it’s a period of intense sadness.

Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one to death, emigration or divorce this year. When your family gathers around to celebrate, there will be a gap. It’s easy to feel the sting of this throughout what should be a joyful time of reminiscing and creating memories.

What do you do when the jolly uncle who was happy to dress up in a red suit and play Santa isn’t around? How do you explain to your children that Granny won’t be making her traditional festive lunch speech? How do you turn a time of grief, loss or bereavement into something new?

If every family had a Facebook page, they’d describe themselves as “it’s complicated”. Even at the best of times there are disagreements and rivalries, so if you subtract a member, it should get easier, right? Loss of any kind conjures up strong emotions, which can cause friction especially when combined with keeping children entertained and laying out extra money (which was earmarked for accounts but evaporated into groceries).

Sometimes those emotions are exacerbated by alcohol consumption. It’s best to prepare in advance by doing damage control. Avoid conflict by making sure that long-term family feuds are set aside at the table. If Christmas is a truce period, then at least the disagreements can be put on hold so that a careless insult doesn’t undermine family bonding time.

If you’ve lost a family member to death, then you could try a couple of remedies against the empty place setting syndrome:
  • Create a home movie which celebrates the life of the deceased, and share it with the family.
  • Arrange a special time where each person must come with one good memory of the person who is missing, and share it with everyone else.
  • Find old favourite recipes or ways to continue the family traditions, so that they aren’t lost too.
  • Alternatively, start a whole new tradition- at a neutral place which doesn’t have too many memories.
  • Give a gift to a local charity in the name of the family member, or support a local children’s home.

If you’ve got family missing because of divorce, travel or hospitalisation, you could have a patchwork celebration by video conferencing using skype, or maybe you can use the empty place settings to invite another family. Doing something constructive will help to keep the momentum going, and could be a way of adapting to the gaps by being creative and generous.

We tend to forget that for those who celebrate it, it is made particularly special when children are around, and with a little forethought we can keep the magic alive for them, even through personal challenges.

Do you have any tips for surviving the holiday season?

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