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Bursack: Empty chairs at holiday dinners are more prevalent during COVID

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol hears from a reader whose father died of the new illness earlier this year and will be missed at Christmas dinner.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
The Forum

Dear Carol: Like many of us, even though my family is scattered around the country and, because of COVID we are limiting contact, I’m only having our immediate family for Christmas dinner. Not hosting the extended family is hard, but what makes it much worse is that Dad, who loved the holidays, died from COVID last July. Yes, we’ll miss the family that would normally have come, but missing Dad nearly paralyzes me.

Part of me wants to set a place for him, but that’s morbid. I understand that you can’t make our pain go away, and I know that we aren’t alone with this devastation during what should be a celebration. I’m just wondering if you have any wisdom to share. — LM.

Dear LM: My deepest sympathy to you. No, you aren’t alone with the “empty chair” feeling, but that doesn’t make your own circumstances less painful. I don’t have an easy fix, but I will share my thoughts and personal experience.

Like so many this year, we will have figurative empty chairs because family members whom we look forward to seeing during the holidays won’t be traveling. Also, like many of you, I’ve lost someone close through death. Since this person’s birthday was also Christmas Day, I’ll be feeling that, as well.

Missing those whom we’ll see again for holidays once COVID is under control is hard, but we can remind ourselves that we make these choices in order to keep people well. We can feel bad and even cheated out of our full enjoyment of the holidays because of COVID, but we can also look forward to seeing them in the future.


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As for those of us who’ve lost people through death, we’ll have to remember that while the pain that we are experiencing is likely worsened by the fact this has been a truly difficult year in so many ways, people have always had to make it through the first holidays, birthdays and anniversaries after a death. Each one leaves people afresh with grief because of the loss that they've suffered, yet they are unavoidable.

Some people in these circumstances choose to skip holiday and anniversary celebrations. That’s a valid choice. Others, like us, want to celebrate with the people we can be with, those whom we also love. We will try to find enjoyment in these holidays, though our celebrations may be modest.

Even as I mourn what I have lost, I make an effort to search out gratitude. Feeling grateful for the good in my life doesn’t take away the pain of loss, but for me, it makes moving forward easier.

We all grieve differently, LM, so in the end, we must each choose our own path. The one that you’ve laid out sounds reasonable to me. You will miss your dad, but he would want you to celebrate as best you can. Think of him as being there in spirit, out of pain and happy.

My heart goes out to you and your family.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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