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The Empty Chair at the Holidays

By Patrisha Tatum

Licensed Master Social Worker

Patrisha Tatum is a Therapist at Agape Behavioral Health who serves girls in Bethel's residential programs. She previously worked full-time at Bethel and at Siskin Hospital. She earned her BSW at Freed-Hardeman University and her MSSW from the University of Tennessee, with an emphasis on Trauma. Trisha interned at Tennessee Community Service Agency, Bradford Health Services, and Jackson Co. General Hospital.

7 Tips for Dealing with a Very Different Christmas

Christmas — and every holiday — will be very different for most of us this year. Whether you have a “safe circle” family gathering or a family Zoom, there may be some difficult moments amid the holiday joy.

Many people have lost someone special this year or face unresolved family conflict that tends to bubble up at the holidays.

How do you prepare your family to have the most peaceful holiday possible? Try discussing these seven things in advance.


1.If someone in the family has passed away this year, do not say “We are not going to talk about them.” It becomes the elephant in the room. Instead, find a way to honor them. Some people choose to have an empty chair for them at the table or a special photo.

For others, it might be incorporating one positive memory about that person when you go around the room and count your blessings. It can also help to start a new tradition. When my dad’s grandmother died, he started a tradition of visiting a duck pond, a place where he has good memories.

Also, consider how that relative’s traditions may remain important to other family members. People underestimate how small things can mean a lot.  If we always put up a tree together or drank eggnog together, those are the things that stick with you and you remember.

My great-grandmother used to make banana pudding for every get together. As she got up in years, sometimes she forgot it was baking and it might be a bit burned, but it didn’t matter. Now that she is no longer with us, someone else makes sure they make banana pudding for each gathering.

It’s a small thing, but it helps keep memories alive.


2. Any changes in family structure can be challenging for kids. If there will be new people at the table this year due to recent marriages, blended families or other changes, give your kids time to get used to this.

It’s important not to ever force them to have relationships with people they are not comfortable having relationships with.


3. Not everyone in your family tree shares the same view on everything. (Have you noticed?) They may have different ideas on the 2020 election, lifestyle choices, and even God. They may use language your family does not use or behave in ways you would prefer not to see.

Think about who will be there and prepare your kids for this in advance. Let them know that in your family, you treat everyone with respect, even if you don’t share their opinions or behaviors. If Uncle Beau tends to go overboard with the holiday spirits, you can use this as a way to teach them beforehand about moderation and why we pray (although not aloud at dinner) for people who are struggling.


4. Not everyone has the same comfort level with hugs, kisses, and big cheek squeezes from relatives they don’t see very often. Children — and adults — have the right to set their own boundaries. If this is an issue for your child, gently mention it to the notoriously “huggy” relative in your family.

Also, let your kids know they should not be rude but they can say “no thank you” if someone demands a hug. If we ignore their discomfort, we teach them that they can’t set physical boundaries and that can be dangerous in situations they may encounter later on. For children or adults who have lived through traumatic encounters, the impact of unwelcome physical closeness is amplified a million times.

COVID-safe Zoom gatherings may be hug-free, but they can include awkward moments of their own. Be ready with a diversion in case someone unwittingly takes the meeting into the bathroom with them or forgets to mute some unfortunate choice words.


5. Prep kids for good manners by setting clear expectations on how you expect them to behave and respond to people. This cuts down on “Why did you act that way” frustration after the holiday.

If Aunt Rose has gained a lot of weight over the past year, remind your kids that good manners mean we do not call people “fat” or ask how much they weigh.


6. For introverts, large family gatherings can be difficult and even overwhelming. This is true for adults and children. My husband is from a small family and has no cousins. I have 35 of them and they will all be there for Christmas, so that’s a lot for him!

It’s important to have a simple signal for introverts to use if they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation or need to leave the Zoom or room.


7. Keep all signals secret! 🙂 Make sure everyone knows that they cannot say anything out loud about your family signals in front of other people.

Taking the time to prepare your family for the holidays can help children understand your expectations and avoid a lot of stress for everyone involved. I hope these tips help you relax and enjoy the true spirit of Christmas.


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