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The Empty Chair

December 24, 2012

For all of our careful planning, the holidays often confront us with unexpected crises. I spent most of one Christmas Eve in the surgical chair of an ear, nose, and throat specialist, being treated for a hemorrhage. The physician cauterized and packed my sinuses with gauze for well over two hours to stop the severe bleeding. It was not the best Christmas Eve for me, the physician, or our families.

The heightened stress of the season seems to make some folks more accident-prone. One of my friends spent the last two weeks of December on crutches after stepping in a hole while caroling in his neighborhood.

I vaguely remember Christmas 1948 when I was four years old. The entire Neely family had gathered on Christmas Eve for our annual Christmas dinner. Following the meal, we recited the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2 and sang Christmas carols. Pappy led a prayer, and we exchanged gifts. That night my younger sister Beth and I stayed with Mammy and Pappy while

Mama was at the hospital giving birth to her third child, my brother Bill. According to my aunts and uncles, I spent much of that Christmas in confusion. Jesus had been born, Santa Claus had come, but Mama was not there.

By far, the most difficult holidays are those when we are separated from loved ones. Some of us who are physicians or ministers are frequently called away from family events to fulfill our responsibilities in the community.  

My grandparents’ family experienced several holiday seasons when three sons and a son-in-law were serving in World War II. At the same time, a fourth son and his family were far away on the mission field in South America.

An expectant mother and her family may be unable to travel during the holidays. Sometimes a student is abroad on foreign study. Our son Scott spent his junior year at Wofford College living with a family in France. The next year he was living in India during the holidays. Our son Kris navigated the Amazon River aboard a hammock boat on during his senior year at Wofford College. Celebrations still happen even when chairs remain empty at the table.

The holidays are frequently tinged with grief.  Just in the past two weeks I have conducted six funerals. I will never forget the December when three different times I stood beside an open grave with grieving parents as tiny caskets were lowered into the ground. The deaths of those children meant that their bereaved families would mourn a painful absence during the holidays. One of those tiny coffins was for our infant niece, Katherine. Her death affected our entire family.

Each year the church I serve hosts a service of remembrance for families who have lost loved ones to violent crime. This year our hearts grieve for the people of Newtown, Connecticut, and to so many others who have experienced unimaginable sorrow. Those families will have a different kind of Christmas this year. The painful absence is symbolized by an empty chair at the family table.

The season has often been a bittersweet experience for our family, a mixture of joy and sadness. In fact, when you are a part of a large family, you learn that life itself is a dichotomy. Ambivalent feelings about any event abound. Humor and sadness, as well as laughter and tears, mingle on many family gatherings.

Clare and I have experienced some of the joy and sorrow that Christmas can bring. Our oldest child, Mike, was born on Christmas Day in 1970. As we awaited his birth, the season of Advent was filled with anticipation and hope. The uncertainty and apprehension of becoming new parents were part of our emotional mix. Christmas was a day of fulfillment for us.

Thirty years later, our second son, Erik, died two weeks before Thanksgiving. Christmas that year was a season of deep grief for us. Still, we were able to find a measure of peace and joy mingled with our tears. The holidays are not necessarily the season to be jolly, but Christmas is always a time for comfort and joy.

November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to really feel like winter. Erik died on November 15, 2000, in Charleston.  The temperature in the Lowcountry was warm that day.  We returned from Charleston to our home in the Upstate with the sky bright and sunny.  But the morning of the funeral dawned grey, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to fall through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we went to the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

Some expressed regret that the weather was inclement on the day of our son’s service.  We felt a different response to the snow. In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty. “Lord, you know this day will be hard for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?”

We viewed the snow as a symbol of hope. We interpreted it as a gentle touch from God, as a gift of grace in our grief.  Many of the cards and presents we received that Christmas year included a snow theme. As December 25 approached, we decided to decorate our tree with only snowflakes and snow ornaments.  Hand-cut snowflakes adorned our windows.

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo expresses impending grief in the face of the illness of her sister Beth and in the absence of their father during the Civil War. “Our dear Beth came back to us, although the fever had weakened her heart forever. We did not know then that a shadow had fallen. We prepared for another Christmas without Father.”

One of the truths that Clare and I have learned is that grief, especially following the death of a young person, casts a long shadow. Our grief for Erik lingers and is heightened in every holiday season.

But there is another truth.

Our widowed daughter-in-law, June, majored in art at Furman University. She is an accomplished artist. After Erik’s death, June painted a stunning watercolor. It was a table set for a party, but it included an empty chair, a poignant reminder of absence. The painting is also a vivid depiction of hope. On the table are party hats. Streamers and balloons adorn the room.

The chair is empty, but the celebration continues.

My prayer for all of you is that whatever the circumstances, you will have a blessed Christmas.


Kirk H. Neely
© December 2012


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