For many people, this holiday season will be their first to face an empty chair at the table because a loved one has recently passed away. Grief and loss can stir up a wellspring of emotions, from sorrow to guilt and anger. The holidays can be especially difficult to manage, as they will never quite be the same. This is true not only for people whose loved ones have recently died. Those with family members who have dementia in advanced stages and/or are too gravely ill to participate in cherished traditions may also experience “the empty chair.”

There are different ways to find peace and even moments of joy in the midst of sadness that may come and go during the holidays. Some suggestions during this season include the following:

  • Honor your loved one’s memory by participating in a volunteer activity that he/she used to do, or attend a religious service or other event, such as a “Tree of Light” ceremony held by a hospice or faith-based organization.
  • Remember your loved one with a special ornament, wreath or centerpiece, or perhaps a candle that is lit during the holiday. During the holiday meal with family and friends, make a special toast in memory of your loved one and share a special memory of your loved one. Ask others to share their favorite memories too.
  • Give yourself permission to grieve your loss and to change your family traditions to adapt to the new reality. If you don’t feel up to doing the things you usually do during the holidays, such as hosting a large dinner or traveling to holiday parties, consider other alternatives that are less stressful.


If your loved one is still physically present but no longer recognizes that the holiday season is here, you can still offer a soothing presence. If your loved one is in a facility, consider joining him/her in any holiday activities set up for residents. Perhaps you could read a favorite holiday story or poem out loud, and bring a favorite holiday food if appropriate. Scale back your expectations, and remember that the changes in your loved one’s memory and behavior are a result of a disease process.

Coping with the pain of “the empty chair” will be different for each person. Be easy on yourself and most of all, do what feels right for you.