Empty Chair Syndrome: What Is it?

19 August, 2020
While it’s normally associated with the death of a loved one, empty chair syndrome can also happen as a after a breakup or distancing of a loved one. How do you deal with it? We'll share some useful tips.

Empty chair syndrome refers to the feeling that occurs when you lose someone special to you. It could be your partner, a friend, a brother or sister, and so on. 

It’s often confused with the sadness of losing someone in general, but it’s called empty chair syndrome because it takes on a special intensity when you should otherwise be celebrating and having fun, such as Christmas, a birthday, or another special date.

In other words, it’s called empty chair syndrome because, in moments when you’re surrounded by other people, the feeling of loss is accentuated by the absence of a loved one. Below, we’ll look at more information about this syndrome and some tips that can help you overcome it.

Grief and an empty chair

An empty chair is like the manifestation of what or who you were before and no longer are. It’s especially noticeable when you’re surrounded by other people, but suddenly realize that someone is missing.

This strong feeling is part of the grieving process and is more common than you might think. When you’re faced with the loss of someone you love, you go through a period where you have to learn to live without that person. It’s a time of deep pain.

The grief will continue until you’re able to deal with your loss and get back to your normal life without that awful feeling of emptiness.

It’s important to remember that empty chair syndrome can happen even if the person you’re missing is still alive. In other words, it can also happen as a product of an extreme feeling of loneliness because of a breakup, for example.

According to a publication in the Spanish newspaper El País, after a loss, it’s very normal and healthy to feel pain, anger, despair, loneliness, and guilt. These feelings are part of the normal process of grief and each person expresses these emotions in different ways.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that if these feelings are very intense or you feel like you can’t control them, it’s necessary to seek help from a professional.

Empty chair syndrome is more common than you might think.
Empty chair syndrome intensifies on special occasions, such as Christmas.

Read also: 6 Tips for Overcoming Grief

What can help you overcome empty chair syndrome?

Often, you might feel very sad following the absence of a loved one, especially on holidays when it’s more noticeable, such as Christmas, a birthday, or any other special occasion.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist and marriage and family counselor, suggests some recommendations in a Psych Central post that you can follow to try to overcome empty chair syndrome.

1. Give yourself permission to feel

We all deal with loss and grief in different ways. This is why it is important that you let your feelings out and don’t force yourself to heal in a certain amount of time.

In addition, it’s also normal that, during this time, we want to get away from some people and events that can make the feelings of loneliness and emptiness even stronger.

2. Take care of yourself

It’s likely that you don’t want to keep up your normal routine, but it’s important to try to rest, sleep well, and maintain a balanced diet. This can help you be more aware of how to cope in the best way.

A woman cooking healthy food.
Going through the process of grieving can be difficult. However, it’s important to maintain healthy routines to say healthy.

3. Plan ahead

Especially during the holidays, it’s best to plan and think about what is going to be best for your mood and choose options that make you feel better.

Therefore, it is best to consider if being alone is going to make you feel the absence of your loved one even more, or, on the contrary, being surrounded by people will make you feel too nostalgic.

Also, sometimes events are planned in advance. For example, if you were planning on hosting an event this year, it might be best to consider whether this is the best choice while you’re grieving. 

While there are people who like to stay busy by running or organizing events, others find it overwhelming when they are going through something difficult.

4. Do things differently

Many of us tend to celebrate the holidays similarly year after year. For this reason, it is worth thinking about whether doing things a little differently or going somewhere new, could help you get out of the routine and cope with the absence of a loved one a bit.

This article might interest you: 5 tips to cope with the death of your partner

When should you seek help?

You might think you can handle anything and that if you don’t solve things on your own, no one will do it for you. But sometimes you need a little extra push or someone to help you move forward.

Although it’s necessary to respect and accept the process you’re going through, it’s also good to look for signals from your body and mind that something isn’t right.

If you realize that sufficient time has passed and the feelings of sadness, nostalgia, hopelessness, among others, don’t disappear or diminish, it’s time to consult with a specialist on how to overcome grief.

  • Echeburúa, E., & Herrán, A. (2007). ¿Cuándo el duelo es patológico y cómo hay que tratarlo? Análisis y Modificación de Conducta33(147), 31–50.
  • Pelegrí, M., & Romeu Figuerola, M. (2011). El duelo, más allá del dolor. Desde El Jardín de Freud: Revista de Psicoanálisis, (11), 133–148. Retrieved from http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=4554003&orden=1&info=link
  • El síndrome de la silla vacía. Diario El país de España. (2010). Recuperado el 24 de marzo de 2020.
  • Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-empty-chair-at-the-holiday-table/