Empty Chair Syndrome: How do we grieve at Christmas time?

The Empty Chair Syndrome represents a clinical picture that manifests itself in times of celebration, especially in Christmas and New Year’s holidays, although it can occur on birthdays, anniversaries or other festive occasions. This syndrome is part of bereavement, and is produced by the absence of a person of significant importance during these commemorations, either by death, separation or other reason for absence.

Christmas celebrations are usually joyful, and are charged with different affective manifestations of attachment, sympathy and union. The person affected by the absence of a loved one experiences a substantial nostalgia that produces an internal discomfort and incongruity. This malaise can be expressed through symptoms of anxious-depressive characteristics: sadness, loneliness, emotional lability, irritability, anguish, apathy, isolation, diminished capacity for enjoyment, feelings of guilt, etc.

There is no specific profile of person that predisposes to suffer this syndrome. However, different factors such as the environment, lack of resilience, history of psychiatric disorders, lack of support, the type of death of the person (child, violent death, etc.) may influence its appearance.

The way it manifests itself will depend on the personality traits of each person affected. Some people will prefer to be alone, not attending the celebration; others will be sad, with a crying crisis and a speech focused on the absent person; others, with frequent anger and a critical attitude towards the festivities. However, they all have in common that they are going through a bereavement, usually due to the death of a close person.

The approach to avoid or lessen the symptoms can be in different ways:

  • Try not to isolate yourself. Even if it is difficult, make an effort to share the moment with others and express your feelings. Seek support from your partner, family and friends. It may be that there are other people who are missing that person and our attitude does not help to cope with the moment.
  • Propose to remember the absent person in a different way, for example, remembering happy moments, putting an anecdotal photograph of him/her in his/her place at the table, preparing his/her favorite dish for that occasion, etc.
  • Propose to establish new customs in the celebration, to replace the moment of the absent person’s particular performances.
  • Avoid the use of intoxicants, such as alcohol or other substances, to lessen the symptoms and “pass the moment”. These can produce a worsening of the condition, or even make it chronic.
  • It is important to be persuaded that there are other significant people in our life and that, with the passage of time, we will gain more. Although the absent person will be irreplaceable, it does not mean that more may not appear in the course of our life. To value with our appreciation and consideration the people we still have close to us.
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We must try to normalize the situation. There is no single indication or prescription, the way to face it, or not, will depend on each individual. Do not hesitate to consult a specialist to achieve a correct approach to grief and to be able to differentiate it from a normal grief from a pathological one.