The Uneasy Empty Chair

For 25 years, there’s been an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, my friend said (I’ll call her Carol). Perhaps not literally. No one expected Carol’s nephew to show up, so perhaps there wasn’t actually a place set, knowing it would stay empty, at the big dining table where the family would gather. But Peter’s absence diminished those feasts. The chair he should have occupied was empty. No one would lovingly prepare that odd corn relish that, for years, Peter had said was his favorite. He was definitely missed.

For the first few of those years, there was some story. He had to be somewhere else. He was working. Finally in year three or four, Carol’s brother pulled her aside and haltingly told what had been unsaid. Peter didn’t have to work. Peter wasn’t joining a friend’s family for Thanksgiving. The news was more complicated.

Peter was in prison.

It’s hard enough when a chair sits empty for reasons that we can own. This Thanksgiving will, for many families, mark the first holiday without mom, or grandpa, or our niece or grandson. Those times are exquisitely painful, and every family will eventually face them. This particular Thanksgiving marks an especially stark holiday for families whose untimely, violent losses we have mourned publicly, too many to name here, ranging from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June to the early-morning November streets of Des Moines, and from routine traffic stops ending in death in too many months, in too many cities, to shocking numbers of shooting deaths this year in Chicago. We come to this holiday with a sense that far too many families have been rended.

It takes nothing away from our rightful concern for those families to remember also the ones whose absences are shrouded in stigma.

For two, three years, Peter’s family didn’t feel like they could speak their truth. Our son is in prison.  Our boy—the one you delighted in, with us—is in prison. His parents bore unsupported the pain of that breach, exacerbated by the uneasy muttering of excuses and lies, to cover what they felt was unspeakable.

Carol was saddened as much by their inability to say these words sooner as she was by the news of Peter’s fate. That they had felt they must carry this pain alone, that they had not trusted her enough to utter those words:  What does this say about our relationship? Why wasn’t I a safe person to hold this news with them?

Stepping back, one can see that this isn’t about Carol, or Peter’s parents, or their relationship, hardly at all. Our unease with some subjects seems to dictate silence. It happens around incarceration, as it did for Peter’s family. It’s not unusual for a woman I meet in prison to say, “My family doesn’t know I’m here.” A similar silence can happen when a family member is lost for a time to addiction, or is going through recovery, or is sadly impervious to anything resembling “recovery.”

We are similarly mute about mental illness. Our culture still calls that category of medical need “scary,” linking it to fear and danger and actions seemingly out of control, so that we might rather deny that it’s affecting us at all. Silence and blame pervade situations where mental illness affects us and our families. “It’s all in her head,” a friend of mine was told by her public school (!) counselor, referring to my friend’s daughter who has long dealt with depression, anxiety and similar challenges. “They just think I need to try harder,” said a woman I’ll call Teresa, describing her family’s response to her mental illness. I have personally walked alongside Teresa through a long stay in prison that has included a psychotic break, delusional thinking and voices that urge her toward self-harm. She is already trying very hard.

I’m saddened by the chairs uneasily empty for reasons that we can’t (won’t?) even really face. It’s not just an experience these families are having. It’s also happening in our churches.

Do we realize that we are coming to the thanksgiving table whenever we gather for Holy Communion? The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek, eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” Our communal prayer at the table begins with thanksgiving. The uneasily empty chairs at our families’ Thanksgiving tables are paralleled when we come to communion. Those families’ absences are ours.

It troubles me that the church has not more fully embraced the place it (we!) could and should occupy.  This work belongs to us, to remember and seek out our own brothers and sisters who are missing for reasons that seem unable to be spoken. We can have a pivotal role in the dismantling of stigma, to pave the way to greater truth with greater support and less judgment. Can we hear without flinching? Can we embrace beyond fear? Where can we share our stories in ways that change the public conversation around every one of these “hidden” absences? Let’s practice!

As we more fully embody the incarnational relationships to which we are called, we will help one another to name our needs, and then to claim and receive the support that will help us and our families walk together through the challenges that befall us.

We’ll make that walk together and eventually sit down together, still family, reunited at the table. Like Carol’s family will this week, with Peter, who will join the feast as a free man for the first time in two and a half decades. That favorite corn relish surely is already marinating. Thanks be to God.