The Empty Chairs

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this commentary asked to be published anonymously as it shares personal family information, but felt strongly enough about the topic to share it with the Pioneer community. There are many families celebrating these milestones, and most will understand the roller-coaster of emotions such joy, yet grief as there are empty chairs. An important message to talk about them and acknowledge their missing presence and know that others are there for support and hugs.

It was a wonderful celebration, a young woman finishing up her high school years, a diploma with honors, and an associates degree earned during the Pandemic, with dual credit classes. Her diligent work, the support from her family and teachers so worthy of taking a day to celebrate and honor her.
As with all good things, the achievements came with a lot of hard work, determination, and sacrifice. More dreams were talked about that day, with serious plans for college, careers, and a likely master’s degree.
Relatives and friends offered their best wishes, and we shared a barbeque. Her grandmother’s house and back yard were filled with laughter and celebration.
In a quiet moment, there was remembrance of her mom, and a high school friend, both passed now. The word “suicide” was not mentioned, yet the brief pause in the conversations expressed the emptiness, the void of cherished relationships and emotions too deep to voice.

I thought of other invisible empty chairs in the back yard. There was the cousin of her dad and uncle, his exit at sixteen so many years ago, yet still being part of that unhealed ache in my heart. There were other faces, too — the friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, all the pain they couldn’t bear.
Part of grief is anger and part is frustration, and unresolved, deep in the gut, feelings. I saw a tear roll down my nephew’s cheek, and I felt some wetness, too, and words that got stuck in my throat. Later on, my nephews and I had a chance to hug, to voice our “I love yous”, to quietly acknowledge our shared loss, our shared pain, our sacred promises to care for each other.
“I don’t know what to say,” an aunt said.
“None of us do, do we? No matter how much older and wiser we seem to be, we don’t really have the words,” another relative said. “I can’t find the words.”
It was quiet then, a not uncomfortable, yet respectful, caring. We nodded, we acknowledged the moment, our feelings. We held each other close for a few more minutes, simply acknowledging the pain, the loss, the grief that was still here, still a challenge to find a place for all that pain, all those questions, the unanswerable “why?”
It felt good to reflect with others on the good of today, the accomplishments of a young woman on her way to live her dreams and move on with her life. We could laugh and celebrate this graduation day, this happy time of dreams achieved and moving forward in life. Our smiles were, in part, a way of honoring those who are not with us now, those in the empty chairs of our lives.
It has been said that grief is what is left when love has no place to go. Perhaps there can be healing in the celebration of someone’s success, someone’s overcoming of adversity and challenges, and being able to move ahead in their lives. When we can acknowledge our loss, and see the emptiness of the chairs, there can often be a renewal of one’s purpose and one’s hope for the future.

If you or someone you know is struggling with grief or other mental health issues, there are resources – help and hope …