By Vicki Powers

“There’s an empty chair in our house, and I’m not sure what to do with it…”

While many families gather over the holidays to celebrate together, others have a stark and obvious void at the table – an empty chair. This chair symbolizes those who can’t be present either through a struggle with substance use disorder, jail, accidental overdose, or even death.

The Empty Chair Campaign is a national campaign since 2012 by Moms United to End the War on Drugs. It starts around Thanksgiving and extends through the December holidays. The campaign encourages families to share the empty chair logo (right) and stories about their lost loved one. The hope is to raise awareness and honor those very real people who deserve a seat at the family table.

How can we handle the “empty chair” over the holidays? Here are a few suggestions from Helen Harris, Ed.D., assistant professor in Baylor University’s School of Social Work:

  1. Find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays. This can be as simple as lighting a candle in their honor, making an ornament with their name, or baking their favorite dish for the season.
  2. Listen more than talk. Harris says its OK to say to others experiencing loss, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care.” She says that is a better choice than saying nothing or saying things that judge or marginalize.
  3. Do what feels natural to you. Perhaps that is decorating the chair with photos of the person lost, seasonal decorations, or a special blanket or quilt. Or it could mean leaving the chair stark and empty if that feels right. “Continuing to miss our loved ones, and more importantly, being aware at times of how much we wish they were present is, I believe, a life-long experience – and does not mean we have failed to move on.”

Houston Recovery Center understands the challenges families face during the holidays. The “empty chair” can be an uncomfortable reality to navigate. Many of our employees have experienced this first hand. We stand together with you and offer hope and courage as you face this reality during the holidays.