As I get older, the more I realize how many families are suffering from the loss of a loved one—not by death, but by choice of the one who ceases to fill that empty seat during the holidays. 

You know the ones: the sister, the bother, the daughter, or the son who doesn’t want to be a part of the family anymore. They usually carry the title “black sheep” or “prodigal son”—something to help the family justify the “why” behind the devastation.

Whatever stigma they’ve received, they seem to wear it well, but deep down, they wish they were more “normal” or included. Funny, though, you always admired them for their uniqueness. 

The reasons they’re gone leave you perplexed and angry. The reasons are many. 

For some, it may be as silly as political disagreement. For others, it may be a dispute that hasn’t resolved itself. And for still others, it might be choices they’ve made have left them wandering the streets in search of their next hit or confined within the walls of a prison cell.

Maybe you have no idea why, and you’ve tried everything you can to make it right again. Maybe you know exactly why, and you can’t bring yourself to make it right.  Whatever the reason, they aren’t there, and it weighs on your heart, making it hard to swallow whenever you think of them.

You notice they’re gone, especially during the holidays, and if you’re honest, every time you don’t have anything to do with yourself. That’s why you stay so busy. 

You feel as though you can’t grieve them. They are an open wound in your soul.
Will they come back? Will they forgive you? Will you forgive them? Should you try and forget them so it’s easier? 

You get on your knees and beg God for reconciliation. You wonder if you should have said something different, something better. Maybe it’s your fault they’re gone. . . maybe not. 

Whatever the reason, you still can’t grieve them. 

You don’t want to grieve them because grieving them might mean you have let go of hope—hope that they’ll return.

So you hold on. 

You leave the seat empty at Thanksgiving, just in case. Then again at Christmas. Perhaps at New Years, too.

The hardest part is you can’t talk about it to anyone else. Unlike a person who has died, who you can think back on fondly and remember together with beautiful nostalgia and memories, your loss is hush-hush.

Your loss is shoved under the rug like a pile of crumbs but gets resurfaced every time someone notices something is off.  

“Where is. . . I haven’t seen them on any of your Facebook posts.” 

“Is. . . coming this year for Christmas?”

All you can do is give one-word answers because you don’t want to go in-depth as to why they aren’t in your pictures or taking a seat at your table this Christmas. 

It becomes awkward. No one will ever know your pain except the beautiful people God sent your way who remain there for you. Thank God for them.

To those of you who hurt from the empty seat, I get it. 

I have one of those. 

I miss them so much it burns inside. I haven’t quite figured out where. 

And even though it’s taken years, I have learned to grieve them, yet remain hopeful. 

I have learned to be at peace and let them go because I’ve realized I can’t change them.

I’ve learned to trust because the only one who can fix it is God. 

I have learned when it comes to the empty seat during the holidays, the only place to be is on my knees.

I get it, and I’m sorry you’re suffering. 

In my case, they may never return. It’s unlikely. But I will always remember them, never let go of hope, and certainly never cease to find myself on my knees, praying for a miracle.

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Hillary Gruener

Hillary Gruener is a wife, mother, and musician from Colorado, and writer for her lifestyle blog Word From The Bird. Her family is her everything. Her husband of 10 years, Christoph, and her can be found at home watching crime shows, reading, or listening to Ravi Zacharias Podcasts, and consider themselves to be the best of friends. They have recently finished building their family RV camper, and are traveling on the weekends through the Rocky Mountains, experiencing all the adventures life has to offer.