The Empty Chair at Christmas

Dec 3, 2020 | Blog Articles

Grief is a strange beast that we can learn to live with. We don’t get ‘over grief’ as if it were a surmountable obstacle. We can become more comfortable with our discomfort but there is no finite time for grief as there is no finite time for love. Grief is often a private affair that others cannot share or perhaps even understand.

Grief can spring out of drawers and cupboards, off shelves, from photographs, waft to our nostrils upon a perfume, is precipitated by music, clutches at our heart, hollows out our insides and plummets us to our depths.

It is indeed a strange beast to know and understand, to embrace, digest and assimilate.

Anniversaries, birthdays, special occasions and Christmas evoke powerful reminders of grief. We grieve again at the birth of a child, a marriage, a celebration when we mourn the absence of a loved-one no longer physically present in our lives; that that person is not here to celebrate, commiserate, acknowledge, share or witness an important family event.

The Physicality of Grief

Many people don’t understand the sheer physicality of grief. The chemical consequences of our emotions can create a powerful visceral reaction.

Our heart can indeed feel like it’s breaking, and many people describe a sense of feeling ‘amputated’ – as if a part of them has been severed.

Sometimes it feels like the most important part of us is missing and nothing makes sense, given the absence of our loved-one.

Another little known or understood aspect of this physical aspect of grief is that it is not uncommon for people to have the physical symptoms that their departed loved-one experienced during an illness or trauma. Respiratory illnesses, headaches or migraines, aching bones or physical pain in the same body area that our loved-one experienced their discomfort is often the cause of people having all sorts of tests to find a diagnosis or gain relief.

It’s always worthy of deeper exploration when a physical symptom is present to see whether an anniversary, birthday or other special occasion may be contributing to the experience.

A client of mine experienced a migraine on the 13th day of every month that lasted for several incapacitating days. It transpired that her husbands’ cerebral haemorrhage which precipitated his death several weeks later, occurred on the same date. Once she made the connection and was cognizant of this fact, she was able to build in a series of rituals and practices that enabled her to more consciously acknowledge the date. These included having a warm bath for several nights before the 13th, going for a walk on their favourite bush track, scheduling a massage, lighting a candle by his photo and playing some shared special music. These simple additions to her life enabled her to give expression to her memories and feelings in a more conscious way – and her migraines stopped.

There’s no right way to grieve

Members of a family will often react very differently to the loss of a loved-one. Some people want solitude while other people won’t want to be alone. Some people want to talk about a loved-one while others may find conversations too difficult. Some people become oversensitive to everything while others are oblivious to all but their own thoughts and feelings.

Christmas can evoke powerful memories of past family gatherings regardless of whether they were happy or difficult occasions.

Many families struggle to relate happily to one another at Christmas-time, and this can compound our grief in unexpected ways. Being prepared for this is important rather than just hoping that things will be ok. Getting caught ‘off guard’ compounds our feelings of grief, so setting aside time to consider how we might traverse these days more consciously can assist us to be as comfortable with our discomfort as possible.

What helps?

It’s not enough to hope that ‘things go well’; we need to plan how we will traverse anniversaries and special celebrations or times of the year.

The first Christmas after a loved one dies is often traumatic as the empty space that person filled in our lives simply gapes at us. However, it’s very common for the second, third or subsequent Christmases to be difficult or devastating as we fully comprehend the consequences of our lost love.

Things that ‘fluff’ you up

One of the most helpful sessions in our grief programs involves people identifying the behaviours, the environments and the things that they do or have in their lives that give them a strong sense of connection with themselves.

Participants in our programs list things like being in nature, fresh flowers, listening to or making music, a good talk to a real friend, warm baths, massage, support groups or counselling, prayer, meditation, rituals, dancing, singing, perfumes, candlelight, aromatherapy, bushwalking, the company of pets, small children, friends or family, visiting special places that are meaningful, keeping a journal, having a good cry, painting, hobbies, craftwork, exercise, yoga or being in the garden.

Increasing the number of these activities – or the ones that we find individually useful – around Christmas or other potentially challenging days, can be helpful in minimising distress.

Scheduling time for ourselves

This is often quite difficult with the busyness of Christmas however making some of these activities a priority in the lead up to this time can be helpful. Scheduling in some time for ourselves so that we can express sadness, disbelief, anger or frustration, can be more effective than it coming out in less helpful reactive language or behaviours.

Making time for tears or for sadness gives us greater capacity to respond to other people rather than simply react unskilfully.


It’s wise to minimise alcohol or illicit drug consumption when you’re grieving as it masks and therefore prolongs, the feelings of grief. It also interferes with healthy sleep. The stupor or numbness that alcohol or other drugs cause, can provide us with a sense of oblivion, but we don’t access healthy, regenerative and refreshing sleep.


Exercise is perhaps one of the most useful activities to maintain or increase when you’re grieving. It gets the chemicals of our emotions circulating in our bodies and avoids these stress chemicals interfering with the functioning of our immune system.

Mike and his partner were inseparable and, when she died unexpectedly, he was devastated. He took up bike-riding and every day for the next year he pushed himself to ride. He claimed it saved his life when all he wanted to do was join her.

Perhaps find exercise that feels right for you and incorporate it regularly into your life.

Time for reflection

Setting aside time for reflection so that we honour the relationship we’ve lost, or writing to the person, can be helpful. Visiting the cemetery or a favourite shared place in the lead up to Christmas or doing something that you both enjoyed previously can assist people with their feelings of grief while for others creating a new way of experiencing Christmas might be appropriate, perhaps changing the food we traditionally eat or the venue, eg. perhaps a picnic in the park rather than a formal sit-down meal or have your usual Christmas lunch in a restaurant to take the pressure off having to produce the traditional Christmas meal.

Delegate wherever possible so that all preparations are shared rather than you being under pressure to ‘do’ Christmas, as you may have always done it in the past.

Christmas routine

Opening Christmas gifts at a different time or changing our usual routine can create a new way of experiencing this time together. Keeping a candle lit by a photo of our loved-one or, perhaps the children can create a special decoration or a flower arrangement in the person’s memory can help us acknowledge their continuing presence in our life, even though they are physically absent. Many people create a special ‘toast’ to their absent loved-one as a way of honouring their memory.

The key is to set aside time to acknowledge our feelings of grief and to consciously plan how we will spend this time together rather than just hoping that we ‘get through it’.

Quest’s resources for grief support

If your loved-one has died from an illness, you may find Petrea’s book, Sometimes Hearts Have to Break of benefit. It contains 25 stories of people who share what they (and Petrea) learned through contemplating their mortality and many people who are grieving have found that it helps them to understand themselves more deeply.


  • Healing Your Life: A nurturing residential program for people living with challenging emotions and who want to heal the past, build resilience for a better future and live wholeheartedly in the present.
  • Living with Grief: Grief can be a bleak and lonely place but Healing Grief can shed light in the darkness and help you find a pathway forward.

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