The Empty Seat

by Pattie Vargas
December 23, 2019

The pressure begins to build sometime around Halloween. That’s the signal of the beginning of “The Holiday Season” (cue ominous music)—a time that used to mean family gatherings, big dinners, and lots of love, warmth, and togetherness. A time when my biggest stressor used to be money—would I have enough for gifts, for the unexpected invitation, for the increased food budget? Money. Seems like such a small problem now. I’d give anything if money were my biggest worry during this “most wonderful time of the year.”

The holidays stopped being much fun about the time my son, Joel, started disrupting things with his drug use and jail stays. While everyone around me (it seemed) was planning celebrations and sending out invitations, I was wondering if he’d show up at all. And if he did, would he be sober or would he nod off over dinner, leading to my endless list of excuses and explanations to family members who couldn’t understand what was going on?

To add insult to injury, about the time my son got sober for the last time and family events became fun again, his sister began her own downward slide into addiction. While rejoicing that he was with us for Thanksgiving that year—having fun, playing with his nieces and nephews, just being a joy to be around—I was worried if she was going to show up.

It’s been nine years since I’ve had all three of my children gather at my holiday table. Every year there is an empty seat—sometimes two. Joel passed away two years ago at Thanksgiving, so his seat will forever be vacant. My daughter is often a no-show, and when she does come, sometimes an argument means someone else decides to skip the meal. Is it too much to ask that I have one damn family holiday meal—just be like everyone else on the Hallmark Channel—just once?

There is no time like the holidays to highlight the artificial divide between “everyone else” and “me.” Everywhere we turn is joyful advertising and jolly music and posts on social media that are oh-so-perfect. Families return from near and far, kids come home from college, new babies make their first appearance. Everyone is successful, happy, and whole. Reality is temporarily suspended as we all try to live out what’s portrayed in the annual holiday letter.

This is a life I didn’t choose—being the mom of addicted children. Hard-won wisdom tells me that not only did I not choose this life, but I also didn’t cause it. Some things just are. I will always have an empty seat or two around my table; it’s my normal. So what to do when I feel that pressure begin to build in my chest, and I fight the urgency to just “fix this thing”? I take a lot of deep breaths. I give up the idea of traditions and rituals and plan around what I can control. I cry for myself, my family, what we’ve lost, and what we’ve gained. I hang out with my granddaughters a lot—their innocence and joy in the season is infectious. I remember Joel and rejoice that he is forever healed and I will see him again, even while missing the old times like crazy. I hold on to the hope that my daughter will one day find her way back to us and be part of our family again.

Instead of forcing my reality into the snow-globe image of a perfect holiday, I’m accepting what is. There may or may not be family dinners, and I may or may not have all my loved ones around this year. It’s another lesson in letting go—the empty seat is no reflection on me.

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Pattie Vargas

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  1. Thank you so much Pattie for this heartfelt article! My son is one week out of 90 day rehab & using again. The resulting negative voices in his head & the raging are happening. Your article helped me realize i have no control over this & to try to find peace with this holiday season.

    • I’m so sorry your son is using again. Letting go of feeling responsible for everything they do is so hard – I hope you found some peace over the holidays.

  2. Oh, how your story reached me today. I must go to Christmas dinner at my (sober somewhat) son’s house for the ninth year while his brother, the addict sits alone. I have tried to explain the shame, the hurt of the empty seat. His wife and her parents and family all come and I feel ashamed and hurt that my son, who is still alive and fighting each day for his life, is outcast and not allowed. I had a fit at Thanksgiving when he invited relatives from near and far and yet still would not let his brother come. I chose not to go this year. It hurt too much to look in their eyes and see their judgement and their pity. I am not allowed to babysit or have my grandchildren over, because of my poor choices, by sticking by my addicted son. I am sending your story to him tonight, because he just has no clue how that empty seat hurts. i have two young granddaughters too and no, I don’t want my addicted son around them, but I just want my life back, our life back.

    • Such a heartbreak, Linda. I hope you find some peace and direction.

  3. This is the first year we didn’t have our children with us. Our son died of an overdose and our daughter is in jail for multiple drug charges. Yes this is our new normal and don’t like it at all, who would? Accepting and letting go are difficult for me, us and we are learning more and more about it. It is heart breaking for sure and I have to often remind myself of gratitude.

    • Yes, who would ask for this? It’s not a club I elected to join. Learning to accept and let go is a daily fight – it’s an ongoing process.
      I hope your daughter (and mine) get well soon.


  4. Thank u for sharing your life with me. My daughter is 49 yrs old on the streets of Chicago by her horrific choices. Still love her. Never had a hallmark. She has not seen her son since he was 2, and now is 27 yrs old. Years of tears, misery, rage, and on and on it goes. I am ok with her choices now, but wow it almost killed me. I spent Christmas Eve with my grandson and wife for the first time since he was 7 . He was adopted. So I guess I really finally did have a hallmark Christmas. Luv u all ❤️❤️??jan

    • What a wonderful gift to be able to spend time with your grandson. You have truly had a difficult journey – let’s hope for better roads ahead.

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