This Holiday’s Empty Chair

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As we gather for Thanksgiving, miles away my son packs for his first deployment. ‘Team Bro’ will prepare their own turkey dinner, give thanks for friendships shared (and for their Moms far away!), and organize their medical packs and rucks in preparation for missions to come. On Thanksgiving, as I do everyday, I express gratitude for my brave young soldier and his buddies. I calm my anxious Mommy heart with an appreciation for their commitment to our freedom, for the perfection these Combat Rescue Warriors expect of themselves, and for the lessons these young men teach about human capability.

In spite of the immense pride I feel for our soldiers, the empty seat at our family’s Thanksgiving table burns a spot deep in my heart. Until I held my son in my arms as a newborn, I didn’t know such a place existed within my soul. Yet this place deep within is raw and tender on holidays when he is far away.

Three years. It is impossible for me to realize that it has been three years since my soldier has joined us at our Thanksgiving table. I am not yet used to his absence.  I don’t hail from a military family. I have not grown up with friends who joined to serve our country, and I don’t understand the demands of a life that keeps my son away during this family celebration. The focus on country ahead of family doesn’t always sit well with me. During holidays this tug on my heart is even more pronounced. In spite of longing for our family to be together on this holiday, the truth is that he can only join us in our hearts. So how do I cope with this reality? I do my best to focus on three simple actions that provide a measure of peace.

First, I write letters to my soldier. I’m fortunate that my son serves in a time in history when we can send texts back and forth. I offer up a goodnight texts, sending good wishes for the next day. It brings a sense of calm to know that his morning will start with a cheery greeting. I use Skype to cross the miles and catch a glimpse into his life. Nothing, however, replaces handwritten letters for long lasting reminders of love. At times my letters contain simple news from our daily home life; others are full of deeply held emotions. Every time my son packs to move to a new base, he has a bundle of carefully stored letters. It’s the handwritten messages my soldier savors, rereads, and tucks away.

Next, I reach out to friends, neighbors, teachers, and mentors who have touched my soldier’s life. I ask them to send a note, a card, or a small gesture of kindness to my soldier. While I take it upon myself to gather up a box of LockNLoad coffee samples, iTunes gift cards, reusable ice packs, and treats for him and his team members, my gesture alone is not enough. My soldier needs to know that the community that nurtured him continues to stand behind him and his commitment. Involving this broader support network sends a message of gratitude larger than I can muster up on my own

Finally, I look for opportunities to provide tangible expressions of the gratitude I’m unable to give my soldier when he is far away. Last week I paid for the lunch ordered by a young man standing behind me in a sandwich shop. I do my best to offer smiles to strangers. I call friends that I know are going through difficult times. These gestures act as a balm to sooth that empty place in my heart.

As hard as it is to give up time with my soldier, I admire his decision to serve our country. The empty chair at our holiday table reminds me to send letters, to ask friends to lend support, and to bestow kindness on others in my son’s behalf. Perhaps you have other ideas to honor our soldiers who have given up their place at the holiday table.

Do you have ideas of ways to honor our country’s soldiers? Can you think of ways a Mom can stay strong when her son is far away during the holidays? Has someone offered you an act of kindness? I appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

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About the Author:

Professor and award winning author, world traveler, Mom, thought leader, mentor, friend, and advocate Vicki Whiting, Ph.D. is dedicated to the facilitation of learning and the development of leaders in all walks of life.


  1. thePhenomenal LaurenG  November 26, 2012

    You know what would be really fun? Creating a Youtube Montage Video where different friends, family and community members tell your son Merry Christmas and thank him for being a soldier of our country, or even for his entire troup and upload it to Youtube. I bet that would make their Christmas a very bright one.

    • Vicki  December 5, 2012

      What a delightful idea! Loved ones far away would certainly have their spirits boosted by actually seeing and hearing messages of cheer. I hadn’t thought of using Youtube in this manner. Thanks for the idea!


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