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11.25.2014 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

When There’s an Empty Seat at the Table . . .

We’ve been preparing for Thanksgiving for several days now. I love Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday. I love the food. I love preparing it. I love the fellowship with family and friends. I love that we all come together in gratitude absent the hustle and bustle of gifts and Christmas trees.

This year we’ve got twenty plus people coming for dinner. While the rest of the nation is snowed under, we’re just hoping for enough chill to make it feel like Fall. Such is life in Florida.

As our families gather for this most joyous occasion, many of us will have someone missing this year. A mom. A friend. A daughter. Or, in our case, our son Michael.

It’s easier now than it used to be. For the first few years after Michael’s passing, I couldn’t bear to think of preparing for our favorite holiday without him. Michael was central to every decision. His favorite dishes. The decorations. The source of all our gratitude.

Now, six years later, his friends have babies of their own. Life has moved on. There have been weddings and divorces. Businesses have stopped and started. People have moved. Super bowl games have been won and lost.

It’s odd for me to think that so much has happened over the past six years without Michael in the middle of it all. Sometimes my husband and I will enter a restaurant only to realize that this particular “favorite” place is one he never shared. Or, I’ll be watching Jimmy Fallon and think, “Wow. Michael would have loved this guy!”

I wonder. Are those who are missing at the table ever really gone? I wonder because sometimes it feels as though he is here all the time. Standing right smack next to me as I go about my daily life, as I prepare and make all those holiday decisions.

“Don’t forget the yellow flowers, Mom” His favorite. So, I order them for the table. I hear his voice a thousand times over. It’s as though he never left. Other times, the hole, so dark and deep, I gasp for air just to stop the pang in my chest.

Loss is a part of life, but it shouldn’t cripple us. When I think of others who may have someone missing at the table this year, I pray that they are not bitter and angry. I hope that they use this holiday season to remember their loved one and to be grateful for the love and life they shared.

Michael had an innocent way of turning sadness into joy. I remember how devastated he was after 911. It’s a vivid memory. One I’ve probably written about before because I think it sums up his joyful spirit.

We would sit together at the breakfast table each morning and read the list of newly discovered firemen, those fallen at Ground Zero. We would pray for their families and loved ones. If Michael hadn’t been born with a disability, he would have chosen to be an EMT. The loss of those brave warriors was very real to him.

Then, one morning as I read the litany of names out loud, tears in my eyes, he looked up and said, “Mom, I think it’s time we try and be happy again.”

People think that kids with disabilities don’t have it all together. Can I just say that sometimes when your body doesn’t work quite right, the mind and spirit mature in ways most of us miss all together.

It’s time to be happy again.

Yes, Michael. It is. We’re doing our very best.

For a long time, I just couldn’t imagine ever being happy again. Yes, the happiness is different now. There’s a void. A voice that is missing. A laughter I shall never hear again. A wisdom not to be spoken.

Still, on this Thanksgiving Day, I know that we’ll all come together in gratitude for the loved ones no longer at the table. For those who gave us so much. We won’t cry or be sappy about it, but they will be on our minds, their names a silent whisper on our lips. And, we will be grateful.

It’s time to be happy again.

This is my prayer for you and your loved one. May God shine His eyes upon you and your family. May you be blessed beyond measure. May you rejoice in the goodness and love that surrounds you. May you grow from the pain and sorrow. May you know that those missing from the table are never really gone for they live on in our hearts and mind.

Wherever you are on this special days of thanks, please do one small thing in their memory. Do it and rejoice. Give thanks for the glorious moments you shared. And, if those moments were less than perfect, if they were challenging, give thanks all the more. For it is in those moments that you grew stronger. It is those moments that you were kissed by wisdom.

Rejoice and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. November 25, 2014