The Empty Chair at Our Table

Dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Pamela Keele Cress is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington. She and her husband, John, a pastor at the Walla Walla College Church, have been married 25 years. They have two daughters, Jana, 22 and Jaci, 20.

Beloved husband, son, father, grandfather


February 7, 1937 - April 20, 1996

Educator Loving, Trusting, Faithful

"Even so, come, Lord Jesus." Rev. 22:20

It was not quite a week after my father's funeral when I heard my mother remark rather offhandedly that "we were no longer a family." As I comforted Mom, I remember sputtering through tears a not so convincing reply. "Yes we are, we're just different now. Losing Daddy doesn't mean we are not a family."

I have often thought of my mother's words as our family has struggled to make sense of my father's untimely death from a five-month battle with melanoma cancer. Our family looks and feels differently in the wake of this loss. How are we coping? Some days, well. Other days, barely. The ache and loss is especially poignant around the holidays. The empty chair at the table is still a bleak reminder of what is no more on this earth.

My father was the energy of family gatherings. He always had some new and different activity planned for when we got together. The activities he planned always led to laughter and discussion.

Thanksgiving was a particular favorite for Daddy. It was then he captured our attention before Thanksgiving dinner through a special worship celebration of giving thanks. Every year our celebration was different. One year Daddy planned a nature hike on the beach in Lincoln City. We were told not to return until we found something tangible to illustrate a spiritual lesson of thanks. Fourteen of us trooped back wet and tired, but happy, hoping to be the first to share so that we could get rid of whatever cold, clammy specimen we had found. Another year, Daddy posted blank pieces of paper around the house with the name of each family member at the top. Instructions were that every person had to write some­thing affirming about each member of the family. Dad gave us all day to do this activity so that "we would have time to think," encouraging us to avoid shallow compliments or vain renderings about those we loved. The glow of the affirmations given lasted through the weekend and beyond.

Christmas was another time of year that Daddy took it upon himself to make sure we did things together as a family. My mom instigated most of our planned Christmas outings, but it was Daddy who guaranteed that the already "fun" plan would be revised to an absolute cacophony of hilarity and joy. Our annual December treks to Portland were always anticipated as we never knew what Mom and Dad had up their sleeves. Whether it was going to view the outlandish lights on Peacock Lane, hear an extraordinary Christmas Eve concert at the "grotto," or have a turn in an impromptu talent show, we were always guaranteed hours of laughs, adventure, and fun when Dad was around. It made the Christmas presents under the tree secondary to the season.

Months have passed since we said our last good-byes to Daddy. Our family has trudged on day by day with aching hearts and souls. We have survived through Fourth of July's, Thanksgivings, Christmases, family birthdays, and several graduations without him. We have done it one day at a time, one holiday at a time, all the while cognizant of the fact that our table is missing a member.

Our first major holiday without Dad was grief filled and painful; yet in some ways it was healing. Thanksgiving found us together doing all the traditional things, including a major "bonding" activity in Daddy's honor. A candle was lit that day in honor of his memory. We spent the morning writing about and sharing special memories of a husband, father, and grandfather. Regardless of the empty chair, we concentrated on our many blessings and gave thanks to God. There was a richness to this celebration as we talked through tears and laughter about an earthly father who loved much and a heavenly Father who loves even more. Our traditional Thanksgiving meal that followed included many of my dad's favorite foods.

The Christmas season found us inventing new traditions by gathering for a few days in the home of my brother in Battleground, Washington. We hiked through swampy grasslands to "birdwatch" with Mom, played Uno, Scrabble, and Taboo. We visited old friends, read a lot, and slept even more. We gave ourselves permission to skip the traditional Christmas dinner. We talked about all the things we could do, but ended up mainly tending the home fires and just resting.

On Christmas morning, we gave Mom a special 40th anniversary engraved crystal bell to commemorate the 40 years of marriage she and Dad had shared. Their 40th anniversary had been one month, almost to the day, after my father died. We wanted to celebrate their partnership and commitment. The memories were a comfort and brought additional healing in the midst of the intense pain of loss. We talked about the future without Dad and decided that it looked bleak in spite of the promise of the resurrection. Still, we were thankful for the presence of God and the comfort He gave us.

Our family, like many others, has a member missing. Holidays are poignant reminders that loss is part of the journey on this earth and there are none who go untouched. Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays that remind us that we face another year without those we love. I encourage you to think of new ways that allow you to remember your loved one in a healthy, healing way. Make new memories with your families while cherishing the old ones. Be comforted by the knowledge that others have experienced loss and have been sustained and comforted by One who knows firsthand what it is like to lose a Son. Live in hope that the chair will not be empty long. Some day we will be together at a heavenly banqueting table and all the chairs will be filled. What a day of rejoicing that will be!

My father is asleep is Jesus at Mt. Hope Cemetery, College Place, Washington. His life and career was dedicated to his family and Christian education. When we meet agin, my dad will be proud to know that after his earthly life ended, his family continued and still continues to run the race that has been set before us. "Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus." Rev. 22:20.

Pamela Keele Cress is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington. She and her husband, John, a pastor at the Walla Walla College Church, have been married 25 years. They have two daughters, Jana, 22 and Jaci, 20.