April 13, 2016

The “Empty Chair Exercise” that Helped me Grieve my Mom.

Walt Stoneburner/Flickr

It was a Wednesday morning, October 30th 2002 when my life changed forever. My Mom had died.

I was 22 years old and my life was never going to be the same. I was an only child, raised by my mother, a single parent. She was everything to me. As I stood there waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I was numb. In fact, I was numb for the next 12 years.

It seemed as though time stood still and in an instant, I was attending my mom’s funeral, packing all of her belongings and arranging for my best friend to move into her bedroom. I learned how to survive without the woman who was my world, my everything, by automatically going through the motions of everyday life, without feeling anything.

Before I realized, months passed and it was the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death. I allowed myself to mourn on this day because that’s what you did, right? You were allowed to be sad on this day. For some reason that is what I had come to believe.

I hardly thought of my mom every other day of the year because if I did, the pain was so immense I could barely breathe. On the anniversary of her death, Mother’s day or her birthday I “allowed” myself to be sad and to cry. It became my tradition. My friends and husband knew they needed to support me on these days—I would be depressed, take the day off of work, cry all day and then the next day move on with my life until the next holiday came where I allowed myself to feel again.

There were times when I would hear a song that would trigger me or smell a woman wearing her perfume but I refrained from totally releasing my feelings. The unbearable sadness had to be kept under control.

In the back of my head I would say to myself, “You need to see a therapist”—a passing thought that I never acted on.

Twelve years after my mom’s death, I became extremely depressed, sad and I cried all of the time. My husband was concerned, “Is it your mom’s birthday?” He knew the rules. I had this unbearable pain and I couldn’t control it.

I finally sought treatment from a therapist. I knew within the first five minutes of the therapy session that this is where I needed to be and I was going to finally be able to grieve. It was a word I had never really used before. In therapy, I learned that I had never grieved my mother’s death because I kept myself from thinking and talking about her. That is the reason I would experience such intense, heart wrenching pain. However, therapy teaches us that in order for the treatment to accomplish its goal, we must contribute our time, attention, focus, and follow our therapist’s suggestions. I knew, immediately, that this was my time to finally mourn my mom so I worked hard and slowly felt myself grieving for the first time. I thought of her more often, than the “allowed” times. I cried a lot. I talked to her out loud even when I thought I sounded like a crazy person.

I slowly began to heal.

In one of the beginning sessions, my therapist explained the “empty chair exercise.” The client reads aloud a letter they wrote to the person who is being grieved, to the chair, as if our loved one is sitting just there. I thought this was a little strange, at least the reading to the chair part. My therapist said we will revisit this when I’m ready.

About a year later, I was driving and all I wanted to do was talk to my mom. I was hysterical and all I wanted was my mom. I drove home and wrote a letter to my mom.


God I miss you. I need you so much. I want to go back to the days of sitting on the arm of the couch and telling you about my day. When I stop, really stop, and look around, I just don’t know how it’s possible you’re not here. I am the same person, yet I am someone so different. 

I miss you. I miss our conversations and your advice. I miss being able to come to you with everything. I wish I could share my life with you. But this life, the life I have now without you, feels so foreign. Not having you in my life is so painful, it breaks my heart.

Why us? I want to share my life with you, my dreams, my fears and you’re not here. I want to call you when I have something great happen or when my husband has a heart attack. I want to fight with you.I want to cry with you. I want to grow old with you. I want to have my mom in my life and I’m mad you’re gone.

I’m sad and it’s terribly painful when I think that you’re not here. The reality is, my mom is dead but it’s like my brain can’t even comprehend the thought. How did this happen? Your voice is so distant in my mind, but if I close my eyes I can almost hear you.

I talked to her though this piece of paper and I cried. I cried so hard I could hardly breathe. The following week I did the chair exercise in my therapy session. Twelve and a half years of pain was lifted. I told my mom all the things I could not say for so long.

I have learned that writing thoughts and feelings into full journal entries have helped me grieve my mom. For me, seeking therapy was what I needed to do to finally learn how to grieve. There were times I couldn’t think of my mom but now, even though it can still be painful, I go there.

Sometimes we have to let ourselves go to places we haven’t gone before. We have to be sad and angry because if we don’t let ourself feel those emotions and the pain, we are never going to heal. Let’s remember the memories and talk about our loved ones.

There are times when you are going to have to be vulnerable with yourself and others and it’s scary. Nobody wants to feel pain and we find every way possible to shield ourselves from it. Don’t be afraid. Go outside your comfort zone. Once you do, you will start to see a difference in yourself.

I have made new traditions now. Instead of a day of mourning I try to do something that my mom and I would have done together. Let’s celebrate our loved ones and honor their legacy.

I will always miss my mom, but I am allowing myself to think about her in a place where it is no longer painful.


Author: Eileen Gado

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: Walt Stoneburner/Flickr

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