The Empty Chair Around The Holiday Table

Dr. Mel Glazer

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Many Americans will be sitting down together around the dinner table very soon, to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza. These dinners re-enforce a sense of shared family values, a feeling that all is right with the world as long as we can be together at holiday time. But the truth is, all may not be in order at the holiday table. There will be empty chairs this year, chairs that were filled last year with our beloved parents or grandparents or close friends, those who have died and gone on to their next journey. We will look around and those seats will be empty, and so will our hearts. Last year they were here with us, this year they are not. What shall we do? How can we celebrate without them? What should we say?

The principle that we should keep in mind is: they may not be here any more, but they are still here. Yes, we buried them or cremated them, but that was only their bodily remains. What made them so beloved to us, namely their soul, remains to comfort and support us in our own lives. Death is like a one-two punch: the first punch, he died. The second punch, he’s not coming back. That is often the harder punch to accept. If Grampa died, it’s not just that he isn’t here any more, it’s that our “Grampa, ” our patriarch, isn’t here any more. Who will be the new Grampa now? Who will hug us and hold our hand, and comfort us when we need comforting? Who will we call when a family problem arises? Who will be the family historian? These are questions for another time. But I do have some simple suggestion which may make it easier to be together without Grampa or Gramma or whomever it is that we are missing this year.

Preparations two days before dinner:

1. Talk about Grampa with your children. Ask them-How will you feel without him at dinner? What do you miss most about him?

2. Prepare Grampa’s favorite foods, so that his memory will linger on in your tummy as well as in your heart.

That night before dinner:

3. Leave his chair empty for the first year. Let there be a physical reminder of him, literally an empty place. Only do this the first year, after that you will have created your family’s “new normal, ” and these details will sort themselves out on their own.

4. Light a candle to remember him, place it on the mantle for all to see throughout the night.

5. Place pictures of him on the mantle—with other family members.

At dinner:

6. Even before your opening prayer, have a brief round-table conversation. Ask each one present: What do you miss about Grampa? Tears are good, laughter is better. Tell your favorite story about him, let your mind wander back to your childhood memories.

Perform acts of loving-kindness in his memory and in his honor:

7. Invite someone who is alone for the holiday, to “fill in” for him at dinner. Then you will have performed two acts of love—one for Grampa and one for someone who needed your loving care at holiday time.

8. Take presents “from Gramps” to a mission or a childrens hospital. Share your holiday joy with others who need it. You will be making a connection to keep Gramps’ goodness and his “god-ness" flowing in the world. Others will feel the holiday spirit, and so will you!

These actions will help keep Grampa’s memory alive, even after he has died. And even more, your children will see your kindness and compassion toward Grampa and others, and when your time comes, they will know what to do, and how you should be remembered.

And isn’t that worth a festive meal?

Rabbi Mel Glazer ca be found online at His first book, “And God Created Hope: Finding Your Way Through Grief With Lessons From Early Biblical Stories, " can be found on and


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