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The Empty Chair

December 1, 2016

Photo by Stefan Bucher

After a somewhat harrowing drive, I arrived a few evenings ago in the college town I hold dear in my heart.  The next day started a new journey for me as I had an official (pinch me) book signing and talks.  I walked the hallowed halls and shared with the current scholars and community members about my journey to become an author.  Although achieving a new found passion is as idyllic as it sounds. Trust me, the road of my dreams of becoming an author was paved with the sadness and tears of the greatest heartbreaks in my life.

This was illuminated for me as I stood in line at the post office last Saturday waiting to ship a large order of books to my uncle who behind Mom and Daddy is probably my biggest fan.  Like Rick Bragg says, “Your first critics should definitely be ones you have in your pocket.”  But while I stood in the long line (yes that happens in small towns) proud of my accomplishment, I suddenly realized the gentle soul who entered in behind me belongs to a friend who had recently endured the loss of a son.

My friend, who is one of the most amazing teachers I have ever met, was the same one for whom I sent many little prayers on Thanksgiving Day asking God to wrap him and his family, another set of dear friends, and the families of the Chattanooga bus crash tightly as they dealt with the first of the holidays without their precious children.

And there he was.  The man I had prayed for.

Those that know me personally know exactly the first thing that came out of my mouth.

Can I give you a hug?

We shared the small talk of the grieving that only the bereaved truly understand.  I was blessed to be in his presence because we acknowledged the unique journey of grief and how it comes with its own blessings and curses and blessings that feel like burdens.  I agreed that I don’t subscribe to the sentiment that had been shared with their family that “it” gets better with time. I shared that for me the all the firsts (birthday, Christmas) were hard, but the seconds and the understanding there would always be an empty chair were intensely more difficult. In the conversation, I shared how much I had prayed for his family for the first Thanksgiving without their son and brother.  And he imparted his own wisdom regarding loss.  His words touched me deeply and helped me to process this bittersweet feeling with which I have been struggling for the last week.

Pride and sadness had co-existed, intermingling with every beat of my heart all week.

From the moment my book was released, I was elated that the stories God placed on my heart would be able to help others who are grieving or to assist those who want to comfort those who have experienced great loss.  And lest we forget, the writing of this book was a part of my personal mending of the holes which will be my lifelong scars.

But please don’t misunderstand that I have never forgotten that the reason this book exists is that my son had to die for me to speak grief fluently.  It is the one literacy skill that I wish I had never developed. Every time I share (even though I know I am helping others), I have to relive the thing that I thought would kill me.  It is a delicate tightrope balance to revisit the pain of yesterday’s memories while remembering the hope that carried us through those darkest days.

With the holiday season upon us, existing (and I mean that in every nuisance of the word) are those among us who will attempt to celebrate for the first time with an empty chair. There also those like me who cannot, simply cannot, remove the extra chair from the table because it seems disloyal, and then there are those who want to take that same chair and smash it into a million pieces.  The pain is real and universal and yet unique to the bearer.  It is debilitating and exhausting.

Be kind and gentle to grieving people always . . . but especially during the holiday season.

As for me, with God’s strength, I am going to keep on acknowledging my empty chair and my broken heart that has been supported and, at times, filled with the incredibly amazing, wonderful, grace-filled, completely undeserved, and restorative hope that has come from family, friends, and strangers alike.  Although it hurts, I will keep telling my story about our boy and his empty chair and God’s enduring faithfulness as long as our story continues to touch the hearts of others.



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