Raise a glass to absent loved ones

Raise a glass to absent loved ones
Picture of Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein

Tracey is the former editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

As Christmas approaches each year, I’m increasingly aware of those around me who have lost loved ones in the previous 12 months. I think this awareness began the year my father died. His death was in September, and I recall being very touched by those who remembered dad at Christmas and took the trouble to acknowledge my family’s first Christmas without him. 

There were tears on Christmas Day, but also gratitude for many happy memories and funny stories. Dad loved Christmas, especially as grandchildren arrived.


While it may be easier to face Christmas when it occurs many months after a significant loss, there are always, I believe, trigger points. It might be a ritual the loved one initiated or particularly relished; a photo of a Christmas past, a special dish or drink or ornament that only appears at Christmas.   


It might be a story that is usually told at this time of year, perhaps by the one who has died or featuring that individual. Since the one mourned is often a matriarch or patriarch, there may be a special chair or spot that is now empty. In some families the chair may need to be left empty for the first Christmas; in others, it may be kinder to rearrange the setting.

The older members of the family will set the tone, not only at Christmas but generally, in terms of keeping the memories alive and including the loved one’s name in conversation. I have an aunt and uncle who have buried two children, and I have always been aware that their names were spoken regularly – not only in referring to their deaths, but to childhood stories, favourite activities and significant friends.


Last year, I felt strongly drawn to do something more than offer prayers and thoughts, and perhaps some festive cooking, for those around me who were facing Christmas without a loved one. I was conscious of one parishioner’s circumstances who had farewelled her husband, mother and father since last Christmas.


While I believe that simply acknowledging the loss is perhaps the most important gesture, I had read the blessings of American Jan Richardson, writer, artist and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. I believed this was a gift I could pass on to others.


Here is the blessing I wrote, with gratitude to Jan who is also director of The Wellspring Studio in Florida.


This Advent you may wish to share this blessing with someone who is struggling with the prospect of Christmas. Or perhaps you are mourning a loved one and this season, that has been such a happy one in years past, has a different complexion.  


A Blessing for the Empty Chair at the Christmas Table

This is a blessing that knows how hard
are the days leading to Christmas for you.

It knows that the carols and seasonal songs
(even your favourites),
the trees and decorations,
the endless countdowns and lists,
the injunctions to do more, have more, buy more,
are each like tiny swords in your heart

Because your heart is broken

and no carol, well-meant greeting or nativity play
Christmas movie or festive pavlova or silly T-shirt
will even touch your heart
much less put it back together again.

Not this year.

Not yet.

Because this year, you know you just need to hold
the pieces of your
broken heart together

With both hands.

This blessing demands nothing of you.

It reminds you that your loved one is with you,
in the quiet moments,
in the spaces in between,
in the stories of Christmas past
in the hope of Christmas future.

Your loved one is honoured
in laughter as well as tears
in games as well as prayers
in dreams
as well as in fragments of memory

Every time you and yours speak her (his) name.

Rest in the love and blessing of those
loved ones who will walk
these tough, tough days
with you.

Ask no more of Christmas present.

The church tells us that in death, “life is changed, not ended”, and so as a new year beckons, my prayer and hope is that, in time, the conviction that your loved one is at peace, a wealth of happy memories and the support of those around you will sustain you in the days to come.   


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