Every November, it happens. People spend time reflecting on what they are thankful for- Facebook fills up with 30 days of thankfulness and lists of appreciation fill school hallways.

Too often, these lists are cliché, predictable even. “I’m thankful for my family and friends.” “I’m thankful for my health.” “I’m thankful for my job.” We are quick to fill in that blank… I am thankful for _____.

Do we even spend quality time reflecting on these things? In our fast-paced world, do we just try to scribble down a vague topic on each feather/finger of our handmade turkeys?

Even worse, what happens when we approach this time of year and we aren’t feeling very, well, thankful? As the invitations are extended and the meal is planned out, we begin to notice the empty chair and the empty plate. Our loved one that should be at the table sharing in food and conversation.

Whether the loss is recent and the chair hasn’t been empty long or the loss happened decades ago and cobwebs have now decorated the chair, the hurt is the same. The hollow feeling in your core and the ache in your heart; those pains are the same no matter how many years have passed. Our loved ones are incredibly missed, and the image of the empty chair strikes painfully deep.

However, we can’t be quick to put the empty chair in the corner or place the empty plate back in the cupboard. We need these reminders despite the tender ache they bring. We must learn how to be thankful for this emptiness- because these symbols represent so much more than loss.

As this Thanksgiving day approaches, I think of three examples of poignant loss in my life.

  • Thanksgiving day will mark nine months since my dear Grandmother left this world. We managed to gather as a whole family last fall, for the first time in years, and the memories we made with Grandma will be forever treasured.
    Grandma- pretty in red ❤️

    Grandma was the one that taught me family is the most important thing in this world; she lit up our holiday celebrations with her presence alone. No doubt, our dining room will be a bit darker this year. Her chair will be empty, but our hearts will be full… full of memoires, full of love, and full of hope.

  • A few months ago, my former basketball player earned (and I mean, earned) her Heavenly wings. Sweet Riley had a personality bubblier than the marshmallows on top of the sweet potatoes soon to be on my plate (well, not mine, because ugh sweet potatoes, but other plates).
    Riley and her best friend- a couple of “turkeys” at our Thanksgiving practice (2013)

    Her joyful, vivacious personality gives me motivation and inspiration daily. My heart aches for her family this year, and the empty chair at their table. I know their holiday pictures will be missing her contagious smile. Her chair will be empty, but our souls will be full… full of determination, full of inspiration, and full of courage.

  • And my first mentor and true friend, Willy. I smile as I think of her love for life and her infectious laughter. If anyone lived out the thankfulness of Thanksgiving day to day, all year long, it was Willy.
    My dear friend, Willy.

    Her passionate spirit moves me forward each day, even though she has been physically absent in my life for over three years now. I know her family’s table will be just a bit quieter again this year. Her chair will be empty, but our spirits will shine brighter, bigger, and bolder.

Put me in a trash can and call me Oscar, I have been a grouch as the holidays quickly approach. My heart has been broken, and my soul has known great sorrow. The empty chairs at my holiday table can quickly bring back those all too familiar feelings of anguish.

So, we must choose to cherish the empty chairs and empty plates. We cannot simply shove them into the corner or the back of the cupboard. We need their painful reminders of the fragility of life. We need the chair’s gloomy shadow to help us find the light. We need to study the chip in the plate to help us remember memories of holidays past.

This is our life now. We have known great loss, and our table is dotted with empty plates and lined with empty chairs. Cherish the memories made in those chairs, and celebrate the traditions created alongside those plates.

Sit by the family member that asks too many personal questions. Hug the family friend that constantly teases you. Soak up the crazy and the chaotic. Celebrate your people- whether they are family by blood or choice. They are here, and they are yours.

Be thankful for the memories of the past. Be thankful for the empty chairs for they represent the people we have loved and we have lost. But do not hesitate to make new memories- we must create something to remember in the future.

Leave an empty chair at your packed table. Leave an empty plate next to the ones brimming with food. Remember the loved ones you have lost- do not shove their memories in the dark corners of your heart. Share stories, cry, laugh, and, most importantly, love.

Be truly thankful- for the moments you have shared with those the empty chairs represent and for the memories you will continue to make with the “full” plates around you.

Thankfulness has to be without limitation and without conditions. We cannot say, “I’ll be thankful when _____” or “I’ll be thankful if ____.”

We have to be thankful now. We have to choose thankfulness over the sorrow. We have to choose to be thankful for the empty chairs for we owe it to the ones that once sat in them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

“No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”  1 Thessalonians 5:18