When the family used to sit down to dinner every evening, we each had an allocated chair around the kitchen table. There was never a discussion of any formal seating plan, but each member of the family just knew which chair was theirs and we would sit at the same place every night.

Everyone knew that Dad’s chair was the one with the best view through the archway to the lounge room TV. It just wouldn’t be a proper family dinner if he couldn’t watch the 6 o’clock news while we ate.

Mum would sit next to him, and I would sit opposite her. If there were ever dinner guests, Mum and I would shuffle around, but Dad never gave up his chair.

That’s how it has always been. Until he passed away.

Then it became just Mum and I. The two of us would continue to take our allocated seats opposite one another until I left the nest.

There has always been something symbolic about that empty chair at the table. Even as I write this article, I can picture Dad in his chair, mopping up his meal with a slice of Vienna bread, sharing strong feelings about the politician on the telly.

It’s been 20 years since Dad last sat in his seat.

Grief of Dad's empty chair feels greater at Christmas

The void left by his empty chair always feels greater at Christmas time, as the extended family gather without him.

Dad would always be the one to don the Santa suit to give out the presents to my cousins, aunties and uncles. Despite being other adults fit for the task, there was nobody quite like my Dad’s hilarious version of jolly old Saint Nick.

When any of my family members think of Christmas of years past, we remember Dad dressed up as Santa, falling off my sister’s bike as he rode down the street handing out lollies to the neighbour kids. He would say that wearing the hot suit in the Aussie summer was thirsty work, as he lifted his fluffy white beard to take swigs of beer in between handing out presents.

Empty chair Christmas place setting
The void left by Dad's empty chair always feels greater at Christmas time, as the family gather without him.

Nobody else brought joy to Christmas quite like my old man. Consequently, my Christmas flame died out with him.

The holidays have never quite felt the same. When I set the table with my mum and sister each Christmas, there is a noticeable void.

But despite my grief in Dad being missing for Christmas, his empty chair represents the memories, the laughs and the love we have known and shared during his time on this earth. That gift is truly a blessing for which I will forever be grateful.

I am also grateful that my family has grown over the years and we can create new holiday memories. This year we will sit down at the Christmas table with my fiancé, brother-in-law, and my adult niece and her partner – each who have never met my dad but still know the love for him that the rest of us feel.

How to stay connected to a deceased loved one at Christmas

If you too are approaching the holidays with an empty chair at your table, take the opportunity to reflect on what that vacant seat represents. It will help you to stay connected to a deceased loved one.

Rather than an empty space, think of the chair as a place still occupied by the love and memory of the special person who once sat on it. Keeping those memories close to your heart means your person can never be forgotten.

Ask yourself what funny, special and loving moments have been shared from that seat?

The person who once sat there may no longer be here in the flesh, but their love can still occupy a significant space in the hearts of those who remember them.

So on Christmas Day, when our family gathers around the table, we will raise a toast to those loved and lost, but also to the memories yet to be made.

Our 12 Days of Christmas Grief guide has some other practical tips on celebrating your special person at Christmas time.

Grief and bereavement support

No matter your family situation, you’re never alone as you navigate your grief journey.

If you’re seeking grief or bereavement support, we’ve compiled a list of services across Australia here. If you are seeking grief support, speak to your health professional or reach out to the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement on 1800 642 066.

Or for more immediate help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636.

At Bare, we would be honoured to support you in planning a befitting memorial ceremony for your loved one – whether that’s entirely family-led, or with our dedicated celebrant team. Visit our website bare.com.au or call 1800 202 901.