Empty Seat At The Table

Christmas ornament broken

For most of us, the Holidays are steeped in warmth and tradition, and are spent sharing meals and exchanging gifts with family and friends. Yet for those of us who love a child in the throes of addiction, this time of year is often a source of pain. We grieve the child, or children who won’t be at our Hanukkah or Christmas celebrations… yet we also carry the fear that they, uh, might.

What are we to do? Do we owe our addicted loved one a Merry Christmas, and do we include them in the family festivities? That is, of course, if we even know where to find them. Do we risk a son or daughter arriving high, possibly wrecking ugly havoc with our beautifully laid plans… or is Christmas about inclusion, come what may? Possibly our invitation can be made conditional that our wayward family member arrive clean and sober for our festive gathering. To our way of thinking, that’s a choice they should make in order to earn their way to the table, right? Or is that simply magical thinking on our part, believing this loathed disease leaves one capable of such a gesture?

There is likely no right or wrong answer here. What’s important to realize, however, is that we do have a choice. We do have the right to take care of ourselves, and to consider what’s best for the family. We can’t choose what Christmas will be for our addicted loved one, high or not, but we can indeed choose for ourselves.

Here’s a snapshot of what one Christmas looked like in my family, when my daughter was in active addiction:


Our son’s preseason basketball was wrapping up, and as the holidays approached, my brother, Paul, suggested we mix it up for Christmas that year. It had been our long-standing tradition that Pete and I host Christmas Eve dinner for friends and family, typically a sit-down dinner for about eighteen. But this would be our first Christmas without our daughter.

Even if we knew how to reach Annie, it would be impossible to have her there. Christmas, like everything else, would become all about Annie. We hadn’t heard from her since she’d taken that joy ride in my car. If we stayed home, I felt sure she’d show up at the house, high and on fire, and render our holiday a complete disaster. We made the decision to act rather than react, and we took our Christmas to Paul’s home up in Portland. Before leaving the house, we locked things up tight, and barricaded the large cat door from the inside.

My brother is an accomplished cook, and he prepared a feast that Christmas Eve. It was the first Christmas I could remember in years when others did all the work and I could simply fa-la-la-la-la. I hadn’t realized how much I needed a break from being in charge.

When dinner was ready, Paul called us to the dining room, and we all gathered around. It was a beautiful table. The center-piece was a collection of every pewter candlestick Paul owned, each with a long jewel-toned taper rising out of the top. Paul had inherited our mom’s antique silver napkin ring collection, and there was one at each place, with the name of the original owner engraved on the top. I was Betty. Paul also used our parents’ wedding silver with the family C on it.

We took our seats, and each other’s hands, and I prepared to say the Christmas blessing. With the exception of the woman sitting on my right, a friend of Paul’s, it was just family that night. Paul was seated at the head of the table, and when I questioned the empty seat and full place setting next to him, he lit the single white votive centered on the plate.

“This is Annie’s place,” he said. “It is my Christmas prayer that she is back with us next year.” With that, my blessing became merely muffled sobs.

Later in the evening my cell phone rang, as I expected it might. It was Annie, and she was crying. “Where are you guys? It’s Christmas Eve, and nobody’s home.”

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart. We’re at your Uncle Paul’s. What are you doing tonight?” I knew that whatever it was, it probably wasn’t very Christmassy.

“I’m sitting here in the dark on the front steps of our house all by myself. You left without me?”

“You haven’t been around, Annie. We had to go ahead and make our own plans. It feels terrible not seeing you on Christmas.”

“Am I really that awful that you had to leave?”

“Like I said, we had to make our own plans. I love you, Annie, and we all miss you. Would you like to talk to your dad?”

Pete was on the phone with Annie for just a couple of minutes. Hearing from her made us all sad, and it certainly put a pall on the evening. But we’d done the right thing. We had to get on with our own lives.

(An excerpt from Barbara Cofer Stoefen’s book, “A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth.” Zondervan/Harper Collins 2014)


To all who grieve a loved one, I send you love this Holiday Season. I wish you peace as you care for yourselves and your families. I also wish you renewed hope for what tomorrow may bring. May gratitude, and a choice for joy, fill the empty space in your hearts… and at your tables.



Author: Barbara Stoefen

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  1. My son’s in recovery for meth addiction. Your experiences and comments really hit home for me. We really do need to take care of ourselves and the rest of the family. Thank you for your words of hope and inspiration!

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    • Thank you so much for your comment, Maggie. How wonderful that your son has found recovery! For parents it often seems a tall order, but we must focus on our own lives. That’s not to say we don’t offer love and support to our recovering loved one, but their journey is not ours. We all need to work our program of recovery (whether we are addicts or not)!

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  2. Thank you . My sister is a meth addict. This is quite possibly our moms last Christmas as she is dying of cancer. Mom really wants to see her, but ………..
    thank you for the hope you give that things can change.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Stacey. Wishing you and your family peace and restoration.

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  3. Oh, my goodness…how this resonates with me….our family has witnessed so many different scenarios over the years with our addict….this year brings more hope than ever for coming years….on Christmas day our son will be in a long term rehab facility with only 20 days left until he comes home…our prayer is that it will be the start of a new life for him as he uses the tools he has been taught to deal with his addiction…

    The single white votive for your daughter made my heart skip a beat and my eyes fill…

    Have a merry and blessed Christmas!

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    • Thank you for sharing, Karen. Wishing your son a glorious new start in the New Year, and all the joy that will bring your family. There is hope, and there is recovery!

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  4. Giving a copy of..A Very Fine House to a man I met in CR tonight.
    Thank you

    Merry Christmas to you your family

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    • Merry Christmas to you, too, Norm. Thank you for sharing my story with others!

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