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12.13.2019 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How to Manage Emptiness in the Midst of Holiday Cheer

For many of us, the holidays conjure up lots of thoughts and memories about all that’s been lost.

My husband and I were at the cemetery this past week. It’s a holiday tradition now. A time we go together to place seasonal trimmings on our son Michael’s grave site.

No matter how many times I go, it’s still surreal. When I think of all the years of joyous festivities with Michael at the center, the irony of one holiday decoration on one small plot of land seems weird—to say the least.

We stand back and admire our handiwork. Mumble a few loving words. Bow our heads in prayer. Bend to leave a kiss upon the marker, and we’re off.

Frankly, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but we do it anyway. We do it because there’s nothing else left to do for our son.

As we drive away, the emptiness floods in. I feel my heart steeling itself against the loss. The emptiness is part of our lives now, and while it doesn’t define us, after all these many years, it’s still there.

There are things I’ve learned to do to soften that emptiness. I offer them now in the hopes that it will help many of you shoulder your own transitions during this holiday season:

Make Peace with Emptiness

Emptiness is space.

I’ve learned to make peace with the emptiness of Michael. As I’ve done so, I seem to feel his presence in unexpected places.

Allowing space for the emptiness, and allowing yourself to experience it, is part of our human development and our spiritual growth. I’ve learned that I don’t have to work hard to fill the emptiness. I can just be. In acknowledging that the sensation still rises up, I can also acknowledge how deeply I love him.

And, yes, I’m using the present tense for I do still love him. Time, space, and the absence of his physical presence can never diminish that love.

It’s wise to remember, then, that all the love you’ve ever felt for this person now lost still exists. Allow that love to complete the emptiness. Lean into it during this holiday season. Ask yourself how can it be transposed elsewhere and to whom?

The stronger the emptiness, the more powerful the love—so you are uniquely poised to love more deeply. It is only when we try to repress the emptiness that the heart becomes imprisoned by grief.

Open your heart and allow that love to flow freely. Do so in memory of the one no longer present.

Beware of How You Attempt to Fill the Space

Emptiness is time.

Emptiness can cause duress and undue anxiety in that all the space that a person took up in your life (particularly if you were a care giver for an extended period of time) suddenly becomes undefined time. How does one fill the time and still feel purposeful?

I often work with people in transition who are trying to fill the time with endless activities: workaholism, addiction, obsessive recreation, and many other forms of self-sabotaging behaviors that only tend to expand the emptiness.

The more you try to fill the emptiness with external distractions, the darker the emptiness becomes because there is nothing that can recapture the time lost with a significant person in your life.

What you can do, however, is think about ways to fill the gap of time and space with meaningful opportunities that align with your own life’s purpose and desires. What’s important is that you listen to your mind, body, and spirit such that you lean into things that are healing. Perhaps even things that remind you of the one you have lost.

Consider surrounding yourself with activities or people that help fill the time, not in a forced or inauthentic way, but in ways that support the highest version of yourself.

Formulate a Practice of Deep Contemplation

Contemplation expands time and space.

After my son died, I spent time each morning in prayer and reflection often journaling letters directly to him or to God in order to gather my thoughts in some coherent way.

There are many forms of contemplation and meditation available to us. The point is to recognize that you may need quiet time to yourself to just be in the empty space and reflect on whatever rises up for you.

Again, the emptiness grows darker when we try to repress it. Consider how this loss has changed you, how it has impacted who you are now, perhaps even prepared you to be something beyond what you ever imagined possible.

Contemplation helps us understand ourselves and those around us. It also helps us realize a more significant calling on our lives. Given all that you’ve been through in this period of loss, is there something God is calling you to do or be differently? Is there some way you might interrupt the suffering of others?

Contemplation also helps us make sense of our journey. It generates more empathy and compassion for others. Without making time for such reflective practice, we risk becoming bitter and cynical.

The holidays are never easy if you’ve experienced loss of someone you love. I’ve learned to find ways to be grateful for who Michael was in our lives and how his life still serves as the impetus for much of what we do today on behalf of others.

When the emptiness closes in, I acknowledge it’s rightful place in my life for to do otherwise would be to pretend that Michael never existed. I’ve also learned the power of gratitude. It always seems to fill those dark places and restore my heart.

As Michael once said to me one early morning just two months after the tragedy of 911, “I think it’s time to be happy again, Mom.”

So, on this holiday season, I express gratitude for each of you, and for those of you who have lost someone, I pray that you will find happiness and gratitude for the love you’ve known and the love you’re yet to receive and give away.

Happy Holidays!

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. December 13, 2019