The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table: Helpful Ways to Interact with Someone Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

  • Full-Size Image: Grief and Friendship
  • Full-Size Image: Helen Harris, Ed.D.
    Helen Harris, Ed.D., assistant professor of social work.
Nov. 19, 2014

Media contact: Eric M. Eckert, (254) 710-1964

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WACO, Texas (Nov. 19, 2014) – For many, this Thanksgiving or this Christmas will be the first holiday without a special loved one.

The loss of a family member or a friend brings obvious grief. And for those who have the opportunity to interact with a bereaved person, there are often questions: What do I do? What do I say?

There are ways that are more helpful and ways that are less helpful to approach a grieving person, said grief expert Helen Harris, Ed.D., assistant professor in Baylor University's School of Social Work.

"There are so many things that folks say that are not helpful, mostly when we tell people what to do, what to believe and how not to feel," Harris said. "Examples are: 'God needed another angel' or 'At least you had him for x-amount of years' or 'You shouldn't feel sad. He isn't suffering anymore.'

More helpful ways to interact with a grieving person include:

Listen more than talk.

"It is OK to say, 'I don't know what to say but I want you to know that I care,'" Harris said. "It is a better choice than saying nothing, or saying things that judge and marginalize."

Acknowledge the loss and express your caring.

"Be available; be present to say a word about the special life that is gone. Ask if there is a holiday-related task you can help with. Will they be alone for Thanksgiving or Christmas? Invite them over or take a meal to their home if they are not ready to get out and be around others. Offer to help with Christmas shopping or wrapping."

Find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays.

"I recommend families find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays: to light a candle on the mantel to burn through the day as a symbol of his continued presence, to make an ornament with her name and place it on the tree, to talk about their roles and be intentional about who will assume those roles now of carving the turkey, etc., to use at least one of their favorite recipes for a holiday dish."

Take time to tell stories and look through old photos. But don't push it.

"If folks find it too painful, there should be no pressure to do it," Harris said. "There will be other holidays, other times and other gatherings."

Ask what helps and be open to what doesn't.

"I ask the bereaved person to tell me what the experience is like for them and I ask what helps or doesn't help them."

Avoid "helpful" actions that are actually hurtful.

"When you stay away, pretend it didn't happen or walk the other way in a store so you don't have to say anything – those things hurt," Harris said.

Understand that there's no set time frame for someone who suffers a loss to be "over it" or "move on."

Harris said adjustment to loss is a long process and tends to get worse before it gets better. Those not closely connected to the loss will move on with their busy lives while the person who has lost a spouse or child or parent will experience fresh loss over and over again for the first year while facing the first Thanksgiving, birthday, anniversary, Christmas, vacation, etc. without the person with whom they had always shared those moments.

"There is a time when we manage our grief more than it manages us, and a time when the healing becomes strength, like a healed broken bone is stronger at the point of healing than the bone around it. But we are always changed, different because of both the life and the death of the person we loved and lost," Harris said.

"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."

Harris served as bereavement coordinator and the first director of Hillcrest Community Hospice in Waco, Texas. She joined the Baylor social work faculty in 1997 but continues her work as a hospice volunteer and provides volunteer training for several Central Texas hospice programs.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.


The Baylor University School of Social Work is home to one of the leading graduate social work programs in the nation with a research agenda focused on the integration of faith and practice. Upholding its mission of preparing social workers in a Christian context for worldwide service and leadership, the School offers a baccalaureate degree (BSW), a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and three joint-degree options (MSW/Master of Business Administration, MSW/Master of Divinity and MSW/Master of Theological Studies) through a partnership with Baylor's Hankamer School of Business and George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Visit to learn more.

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