An Empty Chair at the Seder

An Empty Chair at the Seder

by Rabbi Joe Ozarowski, D.Min., BCC
Rabbinic Counselor and Chaplain, JCFS Chicago

The Hebrew word “Seder” means order. The Seder evening and Hagada have a framework - a time for talking, a time for ritual foods, a time for dinner, a time for praising God, a time for singing, a time for engaging children, a time for questions and a time to think about possible answers.  But the order of the Seder also refers to the non-ritual aspects of the evening. We often have a routine of who comes, who we might invite, where we sit, how we arrange the table and more. These things can change from year to year, yet they are always present in some form. But what happens when the order is upended?  What challenges the sense of order when a loved one who has been a part of our sacred evening is no longer with us? Where is the “seder” – the order - when the Seder has been changed, the order ripped away from us?

All of us ultimately deal with death. It is the other side of the coin of life.  We sometimes like to think we can avoid it. But we cannot.  How then do we cope, heal, feel comfort when we have experienced loss at this time of year? How can we react when there is now an empty chair at the Seder meal and celebration?

Over the years when I was a shul rabbi serving various communities outside of Chicago, our extended families came to us for the Seder.  After we moved back to the Chicago area, we went to my parents every year in St. Louis.  My father-in-law’s rabbinic teachings and Torah were always part of our Seder.  My father’s tales of life in pre-WW2 Shtetl Poland and in the Holocaust were always part of our Seder.  My Mother-in-law’s conversation and singing always punctuated our Seder.  They are no longer here in this world.  We will miss them. The seder of our Seder has been ripped from us.

I remember how hard the first seders were after their deaths. We were not sure what to do.  Certainly, we went through the traditional words and framework of the Hagada.  We did the best we could within the sadness.  My Dad died shortly before Passover, and we did leave an empty chair for him that year.  We have learned some lessons.  While we do not actually leave empty chairs at our seder now, we do incorporate aspects of their lives into our meal.

I picked up some things over the years from my own grief experiences as well as from my colleagues and friends:

  • Plan ahead — Do not let this Holiday/Yomtov sneak up on you. Passover usually requires preparation. How much more so when there has been a major loss and change!  Talk with your family and friends about how you would like your Passover to “pass over”.  Who are your “go to” support people? Spend time with them.  It’s ok to make changes.  Just because “we’ve always done it this way” in past years does not mean you must follow the same routine this year.
  • Strive for balance ­— You may find comfort in the songs and music, the Hagada readings, the food, the support of the family and community. Try to find a balance between time with the family, the community (real and/or virtual) and personal moments. Mourning takes so much physical and emotional energy. Build in “alone” time to recharge and tune into your own needs before, during and after the Holiday. 
  • You don’t have to be silent — Your friends and family sometimes feel they will upset you more by talking about your deceased loved one.  But you may be thinking about him anyway. Make it ok by using her name and speaking about her. Others will take their cue from you.  
  • Share memories — We stay connected to our deceased loved ones through stories, pictures and memories. You will laugh, cry and feel sad together. This is quite acceptable; you are mourning together. Passover is a time of reviewing, remembering and working to do better. By sharing these memories, you create and maintain the legacy of your loved one for future generations.  The Seder and Passover festival is an ideal time to share these memories.  Just as we share communal memories of slavery and freedom, so too we can share our own family and individual stories.
  • Use the framework of the Seder — Rituals help us make meaning out of difficult life experiences.  Use the Hagada as a framework for your own experiences.  Add your own stories to those of our Sages.  Talk about the enduring themes of Slavery and Freedom in the context of your own life as well as the life of the community and the era in which we currently live.  Prepare your loved one’s favorite Passover recipe; read a favorite poem, or display pictures and keepsakes as part of the Seder.

You may have an empty chair and an aching heart at your Seder.  But with some effort, the Seder itself can bring you some order and healing at a time when order has been ripped from you.  And you do not have to do it alone.