A Place at the Table
Tables are a feature of most holidays and this season is no exception. At our Thanksgiving table, we give thanks for family and the bounty of our lives. December holiday tables are decorated with lights, menorahs, Kwanza candles. Tables figure prominently in holiday activities—cooking, baking, eating, and gift wrapping.
Of course, our tables are used throughout the year when we sit at them to eat, and often, the table is the center of the home. It’s where we gather to talk, share, and connect with family and friends.
Like the seasons of our lives, our tables change. Who sits at them changes. Some of those changes are welcomed. Some are not. The least welcome change to our table is when we lose a child, grandchild, or sibling. That empty space forever changes the dynamic of our table. That empty place can become another weight of grief that we carry. A piece of our hearts has gone out of not only celebrations but also the simple dailiness of life. We can avoid the table, we can change seating arrangements, but that empty place remains.
My table has had an empty place for thirty-three years since my daughter Alexa died on November 2, 1986. In the early days, it was hard to sit there through the longing, the yearning, and the tears. I still miss having Alexa at the table and often wonder what it would be like if she were among us, laughing, loving, living.
That’s not to be. My table is forever changed. Sometimes, though, the changes after loss take on a different aura—one I wasn’t aware of until recently. My daughter Tarah lost her close friend Jimmy two years ago. As the anniversary approached, Jimmy’s mother reached out to Tarah. As often happens with those who are grieving, Jimmy’s mother wanted to be certain she wasn’t “bothering” Tarah. Tarah assured her it was no bother—that she was there for her at any time and any place. Shortly after that, Tarah posted the following on social media:
“I am comfortable with grief. I grew up surrounded by grief, it was a welcome guest at our table. It is normal and it doesn’t make me want to run away, but rather run towards you and help. If you EVER need someone to talk to when you are grieving, I don’t care who you are or how little we know each other, I am HERE. I want to help.”
I was struck by the phrase Tarah used: “Grief was a welcome guest at our table.” I had never considered grief a guest, but it was. I never considered grief as a welcome guest of all things, but it was. Alexa’s photos were always visible. We planted trees in her memory on the anniversary of her death. Three of my four surviving children were born after Alexa died, yet there never was a specific time when I sat them down and said, “You had a sister who died before you were born.” Instead, I spoke of Alexa as their sister. Her physical presence wasn’t there, but nonetheless she was and continues to be a part of our lives.
Because “Grief was a welcome guest at our table,” my children are familiar with loss. It was and is there—every day. Alexa’s loss became part of who I am and part of who they are. Loss has given all my children compassion and empathy they might not otherwise have had. They are sensitive to those who are grieving. They are comfortable with grief.
Grief will come to all of us. Our loss may the most difficult—a child, grandchild, or sibling. Loss may come in other forms. We cannot escape it. It is beyond difficult to sit at a table that is missing someone. I have come to realize, however, that there is something we can add to that empty place. We can leave a place at the table for loss. We can make grief a welcome guest by acknowledging loss, by acknowledging love, by instilling compassion and empathy. The physical place at the table may be empty, but we can bring something else of value. We can fill that place with remembrance, hope, joy, and love.