My all-time favorite musical is Les Miserables. And while Hamilton has entered the race for the top, Les Mis continues to be in the lead. Repeatedly, I am moved to tears as I watch the story of pain and redemption and longing and fulfillment unfold in this incredibly beautiful narrative.
At one critical moment in the musical, the French Revolution leader, Marius visits the café where just days before, he sat with his closest friends passionately discussing what mattered most to them. But on this day, Marius’ heart is burdened and broken. He stands now in the empty café with physical and emotional wounds, tearfully singing to and about his friends who had died just days earlier. Alone and overcome with grief, Marius sings these words:
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.
Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.
Phantom faces at the window.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more.
-Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Eddie Redmayne
The empty chairs at the place where Marius would gather with his community reminded him of what he had lost. His heart ached for another opportunity to sit and dream and connect with his people.
Conversations with friends and clients remind me that many of us have our own empty chairs. Holiday gatherings tend to shine a spotlight on them. For my family, there are the literal chairs where most of us can envision my aunt, my grandfather and my father sitting.
My aunt would stroll in with her veggie pizza, homemade potato salad, and cream cheese-filled pumpkin rolls. She’d talk about her excitement for Christmas decorations and Christmas movies. I can imagine the spot she’d most often choose to be. She’d sit there and tell stories about her most recent surgery, about the drama at work, or about her plan of attack for Black Friday shopping. There was often laughter coming from the area where she’d be stationed for the day.
My grandpa would show up with his store bought can of cranberry jelly. It was his favorite turkey topping and everyone knew this. He’d sit at the kitchen table most of the day. He wouldn’t say a whole lot and would eventually doze off. Inevitably, we’d eventually see him jump, awakened by his own sleep-snort-snore. He had a habit of getting up and heading home without really announcing that he was leaving. At some point, it all became a little endearing.
My dad would be carving the turkey when everyone arrived. He and my mom made it a joint effort most years. He’d always pull out summer sausage and jerky from the deer he had shot that season. Looking back now, I think he felt great pride in being able to offer it to our family. He’d sit in the living room where most of the family would gather. There was a specific green chair that most often was claimed as his. He loved listening to the conversations around him and throwing in jokes every now and then. Some of the jokes made us laugh and others made us wonder what he was even talking about. At some point, the football games would be turned on and he’d be right there cheering.
Most of us have our own empty chairs. Maybe they are newly abandoned or maybe they have been empty for decades. Faces and memories flash through our minds as we prepare for the celebrations. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with the emotions that accompany it all. And so we may be tempted to stuff it down, ignore it completely, or absolutely pretend.
Please know that you have permission to feel. Find a safe way to do so. Let someone in. Allow others to share in the memories with you. Give them permission to feel just as you are giving it to yourself. Ask others to pray for you. Let them in. Allow them to carry the burden with you.
Create space to remember. Before rushing from one engagement to the next to the next, sit and be still. Think about what it was like to have them there. Think about what they contributed to the celebration. Think about how they added laughter. Think about how they served in the seen and unseen ways.
Think about the others that will be gathered with you who have loved and lost as well. Know that the clumsy and awkward grief journey you are on, likely feels clumsy and awkward for them as well. Know that you’re on the journey together even though at times it may not feel so.
Give yourself grace for the waves that may come crashing in. Remember that grief is like the ocean…and sometimes the waves are shallow and sometimes they feel intense. It’s normal even though it may feel a bit uncomfortable when it hits. Speak kindly to yourself…avoid wondering what is wrong with you or what others must be thinking. Grief should not be allowed to fuel shame.
Know that the empty chairs do not feel less empty when we pretend they do not exist. In fact, for most, this only makes the chairs feel more empty. It’s okay to acknowledge what was once there.
Stop. Pause. Remember.
May you be blessed as you do.