If You Can’t Stand To Look At The Empty Chair – Sit In It

loss of a loved oneWhen you gather a group of people who have lost a loved one, one topic that inevitably comes up is what to do with their “stuff”: clothes, medicine, eyeglasses…

You can split a room on this topic. One half who are holding on tight to their loved one’s belongings, keeping the toothbrush where it was left, shoes where they were taken off, and medications on the counter top.

The other half says they have a hard time looking at these belongings, as they feel they are a constant and sad reminder of the person who is no longer here. I remember a man telling me that he re-painted the entire inside of his house, simply to cover over and remove the pain he felt in looking at the colors and decorations his wife had chosen.

There’s no right or wrong answer in this debate (See our previous article on “Shoulds” if you need a reminder of that).

But what happens when it’s not so simple, and you’re finding it difficult to move forward. Let’s say you have cleaned out a bit by donating eyeglasses, throwing out those things that held little sentimental value, and giving away old clothes to family who wanted them.

If you shared a home with the person who has died- slept in the same bed, sat at a kitchen table with them each day, had “your” seats in the living room when you watched TV together- how do you handle being in those places without them?

This was the question presented to me one day by a woman after the loss of her spouse.

It had been several months since he died, and while she said she was coping well in a lot of ways by keeping busy and finding support from family and friends, she recognized that being at home was a true struggle.

She found herself staying out as long as possible, wandering the mall, procrastinating at the grocery store, driving the long way home — anything to not go home.

This isn’t unusual, especially for those who have lost a spouse. The quiet and loneliness of the empty home can sometimes be too much to bear.

Was moving to a new house the solution? Wouldn’t it be easier to be in a place that her husband had never been, with none of the memories or reminders? But no, she decided. Being in a place he’d never been would only make him feel further away.

And besides, at that moment in the very early days, she simply didn’t see herself having the energy to move. It was always an option for one day, but for the time being she knew she would be staying put.

And then, an idea:

If you can’t stand to look at the empty chair, sit in it.

If part of what is so challenging about being home alone is having to constantly face all the places your loved one is supposed to be, change your perspective – literally.

These places that we are “assigned” to in the house happen so organically and usually with no talk or planning, and yet they are so firmly cemented they seem almost impossible to change. But they aren’t.

And as I suggested this to the woman above she was skeptical at first, because in some ways the advice seemed maybe a little too simple.

The next time we met, she smiled and told me: “It worked.”

No, it didn’t take all of her pain away, and she wasn’t finding herself anymore eager to get home.

But when she was there she experimented with the idea. At breakfast, instead of sitting at the table in her seat, looking where her husband was supposed to be (or standing at the counter, avoiding the kitchen table all together as she had become accustomed to doing) she sat in “his chair”. And she said it put her strangely at ease.

Dinnertime was spent in front of the TV, but rather than sitting on the couch as she was used to doing, she sat in “his” recliner, and put up her feet, just as he used to do. When she got cold in the evening, instead of grabbing one of her sweaters, she picked out his favorite old sweatshirt and put it on.

When it was time to sleep, it felt far too strange to switch sides completely. But she did inch just a little closer to the middle, and felt it help shrink the void.

For her, this simple practice wasn’t just about filling the empty spaces so she no longer had to look at them, it made her feel closer and more connected to the places and times and memories they shared. It made it just a touch more bearable to be home.

It made her feel closer to him.


If you’re finding it difficult to move forward after the loss of a loved one, know that there are people you can talk to about your experience.

Our forums include a section labeled just that: “Finding it Difficult to Move Forward.” Share your story, and then explore the forum to see what others have shared about their loss.

7 thoughts on “If You Can’t Stand To Look At The Empty Chair – Sit In It”

  1. Thank you for posting this! I lost my husband two years ago (the 2nd anniversary of his death in in 2 days!) and I, too, found it hard to be in “his spaces” ~ I did the same thing in bed, moving to the center, sleeping closer to “his side.” It did make it slightly easier…the room didn’t feel as empty, as this was closer to the center of the room.
    I gave away much of his clothing, kept his favorite blue work shirt LOL…a few other things, gave much to the kids.
    But no matter what I keep, what I give away, where I sit or sleep ~ he is always there with me, in my heart. There is NO escaping that…nor would I ever want to.
    He was my greatest love.

  2. WOW! This is exactly what I did. My husband died December 2017 and I shut down. Finally, I thought I’m going to be ok. I started doing all the things in this article and I thought it was comforting. I sat in his chair at the kitchen table, wear his hoodies, and even when I’m driving because my husband did most of the driving, and I sit on his side of the bed where always sat.
    Thanks for sharing this article.

  3. I just lost my husband September 29 2018 unexpectedly from heart failure on our bedroom floor. I have always prepared Thanksgiving which I decided to do this year again. I too did not know if I should leave his chair empty but I think it would be harder to do so. I find myself not wanting to leave our house as I feel close to him hear and seems harder coming back home. I have 4 kitties whose love helps but I don’t want to be here anymore. Thank you so much for your posts

  4. This site is helpful to me, and I’m grateful. My husband had a massive heart attack July 25, 2016. I did CPR and thand EMTs arrived quickly. It took a lot of effort to re-establish his heartbeat. (The living room is difficult to spend time in. I have flashbacks and revisit the trauma. He survived the 50 minute ambulance ride to the hospital. He went into cardiac arrest again, and they got him back, put in four stents, opening the totally blocked coronary artery. He had some anoxic brain damage and kidney fsmage. Noone ever tells us about that when CPR us taught. The drs and nurses acted like I was a hero. “Oh, you’re the wife who did CPR and saved hrr husband’s life. Amazing.” I didn’t feel like a hero. I wondered if he would be angry with me for not letting him go. We had two months together in the hospital. There was some cognitive loss, but he was still there. We talked, held hands, laughed, told each other stories of our life together. I value those months despite the stress and constant struggles. The kidney damage took him September 22. I was with him, holding his hand, telling him how much I loved him.
    It’s three years. I’m functioning, but I know I’ll never “get over” this loss. It is part of my life’s fabric. I feel closer to him in our home and in nature. I don’t like to be away from home very long. I’ve given away done if his clothes, but kept a few special pieces. I sleep closer to his side of the bed and sometimes use his pillow.i did repaint the bedroom and change the furniture a bit I know he’s still still with me because I feel his oresence constantly. My husband was a talented leather crafter and I still can’t bear to go into his studio where we worked together. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do that.
    Sorry for the long, rambling comment. This just poured out.

    1. Janet Taylor, your entry above is a beautiful expression of life, love, and the grieving process. I appreciate you sharing these thoughts. The love is and always be in the mix.
      Peace to you.

  5. I lost my husband two years ago at home. I remodeled the entire house. When I was done, the grief set in. Someone once told me to work through my grief and not around it. So it is still a work in progress but at least now I say, I want to get home instead of running away from home. I feel closer to him when I am home now…

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