The holidays. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Chanukah. Kwanza. Times to be happy and celebrate. For others, but not for me. For me, it is a time of an empty plate at the table. A remembrance of my child.

My child used to sit at that plate heaping turkey and potatoes on his plate. A smile on his eager face. But no more. No more will I see him and that plate will remain empty. Empty as my heart, I fear.

And all around me, will be celebrating and smiling while I feel I have little to celebrate or smile about. He is gone and his plate, his place at the table are without him. It is too much to bear, it seems. I wish I could just go and skip the holidays. They are just days of pain and hopelessness.

I should have just stayed in bed where I feel most at home. Not get up, get dressed and pretend to be alright so as not to upset others on their day of happiness. “Okay, everyone,” a relative says. “We’ll go round the table and everyone will say what they are thankful for.” It will be my turn soon. What am I to say? I have nothing to be thankful for. Yes, I love my wife and my daughter, but right now they do not compensate for the loss that digs into me.

Staring at the table, all set with tablecloth and linen. All the silverware is in place, but he is not where he should be. His chair will remain unused. The plate empty. The table was set for him too “so we would all remember him.” As if we could forget him. But that empty plate just will make me remember that I lost him.

Or will it? That plate, an emblem of what I lost, is also a holder of what I gained from his life. That shiny white plate holds memories of him at the table. Eating with his mouth open. Reaching across the table. Not wanting to eat his vegetables.

The plate holds the joy I had and could have when he was with us in physical form. It contains my calling him from the TV to come and eat. And the smile he had when he saw that the meal was one of his favorites. That smile! So big and happy when he was enjoying himself. That smile that made the world light up.

And if I look into the empty plate, I can just see that smile if I allow myself to do so. And I see memories that made us all glad and even some that made me upset, but now can make me happy to recall them. That plate can recall the times when I had to send him away from the table to wash his hands, and he’d come back with the same dirty hands, having forgotten that soap was needed to get them clean. Or the times when he would either not want to eat what was served or ask for seconds and even thirds.

That plate can be empty or it can be full of the life he brought to us. The joys he set at our table. It can be a cause of pain or a source of joy that we had him at all. It can remind us of his death and what we lost, or all that we gained from his living. It actually is our choice to make. We can mourn at Thanksgiving or feel the joy and thanks that come from his having been our son. It may take a concerted struggle but it could be worth the effort.

We can fill that plate either with loss or with gain from having been blessed with his life and the exultation he brought us.

Neal Raisman

Dr. Neal Raisman is Emma’s and Jack’s “zaddi” or grandfather which he considers his number one job. But Dr. Raisman is also the leading authority and consultant on customer service and retention in higher education. Dr. Raisman’s best selling books such as The Power Of Retention: More Customer Service In Higher Education have been purchased by 63% of all colleges in the US. His latest book is From Admissions to Graduation: Increasing Growth through Collegiate Customer Service. His customer service and retention blog with its discussions of recent research and solutions to customer service issues is very popular and read by over 2,000 colleges, universities and business that work with academia each week He has two children. Isaac who died of meningitis at age 26 and Shana who is 42 and mother to Jack and Emma. Neal is a highly sought after speaker, trainer, consultant, researcher, and marketer on customer service. His firm, N.Raisman & Associates is the leading customer service consulting group for retention, enrollment, morale and marketing for higher education and businesses that work with colleges in the US, Canada and Europe. He has a PhD from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in neurolinguistics, was a Fulbright Fellow in France; has published six books, over 400 articles and the blog; won numerous academic and marketing awards and accolades. But, little makes him prouder than his family and when his dog Hersch listens to him.

More Articles Written by Neal