Empty Chair Syndrome During the Holidays

Empty chair syndrome symbolizes the emptiness of those who are no longer there when festivities such as Christmas arrive. What can we do?
Empty Chair Syndrome During the Holidays
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 November, 2023

The spaces left behind by those who are no longer with you materialize in the most unusual and painful ways. Their images are still imprinted in the photographs you keep of them. Their belongings and their empty rooms tell you of a past when they were always around. This can lead to something known as empty chair syndrome.

Those who’ve passed away occupy your heart, but not your physical environment. And this is evident when holidays like their anniversaries and, of course, Christmas roll around. In those times when we dress up for celebration, get together, and offer presents, absences hurt more than ever–so much so that we don’t know what to do with them.

It’s not uncommon for many to say that perhaps it’s best not to celebrate anything and skip the glitter, the colored lights, the Christmas trees, and the tables packed with delicious dishes and delicacies. It’s as if daring to laugh and enjoy were an attack on or a lack of respect for those who no longer inhabit this world. However, is this the most appropriate way of handling things?

It’s very difficult to laugh and enjoy the company of others when the loss of a loved one still hurts us excessively.

Presents under a Christmas tree.
Christmas is one of those times in which we most remember those who are no longer here.

What’s empty chair syndrome?

Have you lost a loved one throughout this year? If so, perhaps the proximity of the Christmas holidays is a reason for sadness for you. It may even make your grieving process difficult. You see how the cities are filled with lights, how those around you are excited to make plans, to look for gifts, and to get caught up in this maelstrom so typical of the holiday season.

Those who’ve experienced a loss often suffer from what’s known as empty-seat syndrome when this type of celebration arrives. It consists of an intensification of emotions and a deeper feeling of said absence. Many experience a setback in their attempt to accept the new reality, as well as a greater flood of memories associated with the death of a loved one.

At the same time, unhealthy thoughts often arise, which make the wound bigger. Ideas like “I wish I could close my eyes and make it so that none of this had happened,” “I don’t know what I’m going to do without that person around,” or “My life after this will no longer involve celebrations” create mental clouds of great suffering. Almost without realizing it, we encyst the grieving process itself.

The pain of a loss is like the waves of an ocean. Sometimes those waves of pain are soft and bearable and other times they hit us until they leave us adrift, without knowing how to react. We’re all required to learn how to navigate the grieving process.

How to face the festivities without a loved one

The particularity of holidays, such as Christmas, is that, in general, they usually bring together people who’ve suffered the same loss. For example, an entire family may be mourning the loss of one of its members–a child, a grandparent, a parent, a cousin… Friends may be missing a member of their circle. The holidays are events in which absences are lived collectively, and this makes them more challenging.

The empty chairs of those who aren’t there are metaphorical images of said absences. They’re something for which nobody is prepared, but that sooner or later, we must assume. Death and mourning are lessons that life forces us to endure. Facing them in times of celebration is one more opportunity to move forward and accept the situation. Let’s see how.

1. Non-celebration increases pain: Say yes to family gatherings

It would be easier to resort to avoidance, not celebrating Christmas Eve, Christmas, or the New Year. However, by avoiding those moments, what we do is intensify the pain. It’s best to stay within normality and favor those moments of union with other loved ones.

2. Organize a small meeting to decide what to do and how

When a family is grieving, the chores can pile up and overwhelm us. Don’t leave anything to chance or wait until the last moment. Otherwise, stress will arise and emotions will intensify. The most appropriate thing to do in these cases is to agree on what you’ll do, who’s in charge of each task, what’s needed, and how each task and process will be carried out.

3. Opt for simplicity

Empty chair syndrome has the particularity of stirring up our feelings. Holidays aren’t easy moments, and energies may be low. Let’s opt for very simple and basic celebrations, those that exclusively favor the connection with our loved ones.

There’s no need to go out to dinner or have a home where the Christmas decorations go to extremes. Avoid artificiality and focus on being together.

During the holidays, it’s okay to “reinterpret” the space of someone who’s no longer there. You can change that chair in which they sat and let others occupy it, or you can leave it empty to positively remember and honor them.

4. Don’t downplay emotions–expressing them is allowed

Research from the University of Granada, in Spain, for example, highlights how the emotional processing bias in mourning settles in us. It’s common to avoid, repress, or hide what we feel, thinking that this is the best thing to do. But we want to be clear: This is a completely erroneaous idea.

During our holiday celebrations, it’s okay to talk, get emotional, and even cry if we need to. Likewise, it’s good to understand that each member of the family expresses their grief in a certain way. In these cases, it’s important to pay attention to children. So, encourage them to express themselves and remember the absent person as you wish, for example, with drawings.

5. Positive reminders of those who are no longer here

Empty chair syndrome is one more process of mourning itself. At some point, there will come a birthday, holiday, or another special event that will make us remember the person who’s no longer here. Regrets, words unsaid, and painful memories will come to mind. However, on this journey toward acceptance, we must handle these moments.

In this regard, one way to do it is by remembering those positive, magical, and wonderful moments that we lived together with that being. Doing it collectively and as a family can be healing. It’s a way of celebrating their life and shedding light on the wound so that the imprint of the person who left us is honored.

A family walking down a street at Christmas time, smiling.
Remembering those who are no longer among us by evoking positive moments will be cathartic and healthy.

The importance of emotional and social support

No one has said that grieving is easy. Nor is it a quick process that meets fixed standards. Everyone needs their time and each person will feel relief by embracing some acts and not others. Therefore, something that we must understand is that losses will always hurt, but they’ll come like the waves of the sea. Some will be soft and bearable, and others will affect us a little more.

It’s common to feel greater sadness and nostalgia during the holidays. It’s normal and understandable. Let’s lean on our loved ones and tuck the memory of those we’ve lost in our hearts forever. It’s there where they’ll live on. In the end, we’ll be able to live with said absence.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.