Before my late husband Phil's death in a cycling accident, Thanksgiving Day was filled with gratitude for the gifts of the present. Then death changed my focus, and I found myself constantly yearning for the past.
On my first widowed Thanksgiving Phil's empty seat at the dinner table represented only my personal loss. Knowing he would never again sit beside me as we spoke aloud the things for which were grateful, around our Thanksgiving table, made the empty space beside me pulsate in my mind's eye. My heart radiated pain, and sitting through the meal required every drop of determination I possessed. The laughter around the table hurt my ears, the sadness my entire family felt burned my eyes like gas, and everything for which I was grateful had some association with grief.
The following year when Thanksgiving dinner came around, I found myself feeling more bitter than sad...that unoccupied seat beside me emphasizing the obvious fact that I was alone, and that Phil was still dead. His continued absence baffled me in an inexplicable way. I could hardly look at the seat beside me.
365 more days brought resignation to sit beside me at the Thanksgiving table. Phil's absence was as much a part of my life as his presence once had been, and I found that oddly comforting. We all missed him, we all talked openly about his funny antics, and as a family we learned how to include the joys of the past into our Thanksgiving celebration. I became resigned to the realities of widowhood, but able to be grateful for the gifts surrounding me.
Year four I was taken off guard by the realization that I was okay by myself, not just pretending, or wearing a mask, or making the most of a difficult day...but really okay. I didn't feel less than, I felt whole. Missing Phil had become a part of my daily life without consuming me completely. I didn't know this until I heard myself laughing and turned to the seat next to me without flinching in pain.
Somehow Phil's empty seat has come to represent more than just my personal loss. That seat is now filled with the spirits of the many people who have been gifts to me during my life. Today I count the blessings of both the past and the present. Losing Phil opened my eyes to the many gifts that have come and gone from my life. The gifts I can no longer touch have become all the more precious. I count blessings in a new way, and my gratitude list has experienced some amazing growth as a result.
As time has passed, my life now includes an amazing new husband, many new family members, and seven years of perspective on the loss of my beloved Phil. I have realized that there will always be an empty seat around our family table. There is no other person who can fill the space that Phil occupies in the hearts and minds of every single person who loves him, including me. Now I know that his seat doesn't need to be physically filled for his presence to be felt at each Thanksgiving meal. His love for me is a blessing that I count, right along with the loving people who now populate my everyday life. Because love never dies.
Michele Neff Hernandez is the founding President, and Executive Director of the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation. Soaring Spirits is a non-profit organization committed to providing resources and peer support to people grieving the loss of a loved one, with a special focus on those who are widowed. Michele inspires people as a motivational speaker and freelance writer. She also works as a member of the Bereavement Training Team for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and is a regular contributor to various websites, blogs, magazines, and collaborative book projects. Ms. Neff Hernandez is a resident of Simi Valley, California where she lives and laughs with her three amazing children, and is newly married to an amazing Aussie who supports and encourages her work with the widowed community. An avid runner and outdoor enthusiast, she actively encourages others to embrace the life they are given.