The Abandoned Table: Changing Places after a Death in the Family

DSC01526We ate dinner at the antique oak table. Vic’s stepfather had given it to us when we bought our home in 1972. We each had our place—me closest to the kitchen, David to my left, Anthony across the table, and my husband Vic to my right. Vic and I had the sunset views, but the kids didn’t mind.

Dinner from the garden

Dinner from the garden

We made it a point to have dinner together, give thanks, and share food and the day’s events. I made a big salad and a vegetarian entrée, often Italian with vegetables from our garden. My family loved pasta. I never convinced them of the superiority of brown rice, although I tried.

For fifteen years, Vic wasn’t home three nights a week, so the kids and I had dinner without him. No one sat at Vic’s place.

After our sons left home, we clung to our habit, Vic in his spot and me in mine. When David and Anthony visited, they still had their preferred spot at family dinners.

Preparing dinner in the transplant ward

Preparing dinner in the transplant ward

The plan began to crumble after Vic was diagnosed with cancer. I still prepared and shared dinner with him in his hospital room, on the stem cell transplant ward, or anywhere he had to be. Then that disintegrated, too.

“Don’t try to talk me into eating,” Vic said quietly.

I hadn’t tried, had I? OK, maybe a little. “I made your favorite. Would you like a little snack?” He was sick. He suffered. I wanted to comfort him with food he loved, and his good appetite comforted me. No appetite was an alarming sign among many bad signs.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll make food you like. Then you can choose whether or not you want to eat it.”

During that last month, he sometimes asked for minestrone soup or tapioca pudding. I warmed small servings in his favorite sapphire bowl. More often, he couldn’t eat, so I sat by myself, tense, silent, and sad. It felt wrong to eat when he couldn’t. Everything felt wrong.

Changing places with family & friends

Changing places with family & friends

After Vic died, I couldn’t bring myself to sit at the dining room table. I didn’t use the table on the deck either, since we had our places there, too. I ate on a stool in the kitchen or on the back porch or on the floor by the woodstove when winter came. I shoveled food in like a barbarian and often forgot to pray. Food filled the hole of longing for Vic and family, for silly jokes, shared pleasures, and everyday stories from people I loved the most.

Changing places with Anthony

New places with Anthony



For years, I avoided the dining room table except when I had visitors. Recently, I practice sitting in different places. First David’s, then Anthony’s, then Vic’s. Like Goldilocks, I want the chair that’s just right.

I remember to give thanks now—for my food, for Vic, and for the many meals we shared—but I still haven’t found my new place.


Have you lost someone you ate meals with for years? A death, a break-up, a child leaving home? How did that change your eating patterns? Was it a relief or was it traumatic? For other articles about food and my family, see Better than your Grandma’s Marinara and Cooking a Bowl of Italian Heaven. You might also enjoy my family’s favorite recipes.

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that since my daughter died I eat most of my meals standing over the kitchen sink. Once in a while I will light a candle or have wine with dinner, making a big enough deal over it to convince myself to sit for a moment.
    I remember those days when I first met you in the tiny kitchenette at Strong Memorial Hospital, when we were each trying to feed our loved ones. Your meals always smelled exquisite. If only food and love could fix cancer. Sigh.

    • Those were the days when I was trying to keep the shared meals going, Robin. I cooked at the American Cancer Society lodge and took what I’d made to the hospital where I warmed it in a microwave. Then there were those incredible days when friends from Ithaca delivered food for us. I sat at my table last night, but not in Vic’s or my place. Experimenting with honoring my alone meals a little more than I have in the last seven years. Thanks for commiserating.

  2. It’s strange the little things we take for granted with loved ones that can become so significant when they’re gone. My husband and I also have our designated places at the table. When friends come over for dinner, they know without instruction, where not to sit. I can only imagine how strange it would feel to eat again at that table, knowing the person we loved once sat there and never will again.

    • It is strange, Debby. The small symbols and losses remain as part of a bigger picture of creating a new life. I’ll likely feel this sense of displacement as long as I live in the house we shared.

      • No doubt you will Elaine. I read and write so much on grief and loss, and sometimes can’t help but imagine what life would be like without my husband and I honestly can’t even envision what it would be like to live alone where you once shared a life with someone. I commend your strength and your words that comfort so many others. <3

  3. Thank you for this poignant post of place Elaine. Yes, when my boys left home it seemed strange to not have them here. When they do visit I pull out all the stops re food. Sometimes I lay a place for the unexpected visitor as at Passover when a place was laid for Elijah. Not that I’m Jewish, I’m not, but I just like the idea.

    • Good idea for me to lay out a place for an unexpected guest, Susan. It’s an invitation to the world. Thanks for the idea. I like it, too. I also remember when my sons left home and the sense of displacement when there was only the two of us.

  4. This post is a bingo for me. The table is such a freighted metaphor: food, family, ritual are words that come to mind here.

    Just yesterday I looked again at a photo of my birth family seated at the kitchen table – our dining room was for guests. The family is only partially seated when the photo was snapped – Mother and Mark at one end, and Daddy about to sit at the other. We sat in birth order; two chairs are vacant. Probably sister Janice or I held the camera. Last November, the house, table and chairs were all sold – but the photo remains.

    I love your Goldilocks image – and the fact that you are again giving thanks! By the way, you have lovely furniture.

    • I love thinking of the photo remaining when the table is gone, Marian. I looked for a photo of Vic at the dining room table, but didn’t find one. I know there is one somewhere, but so many family images are locked up in his notebooks of slides and a box of prints. I haven’t had time to get it all digitalized. I know there are a zillion stories in those photos, tinged with love and sadness. My furniture is a little haphazard, but the table works in my 250 year old house. I had to clear it off for the photo!

  5. Such a poignant way to honor the connection of food, family, place, heirlooms, and spirit. The empty place at the table has long been a metaphor for grief. I also thought of my friend and poet Mark Nepo, who used to tell us about the Seder practice of opening the door, setting a place for Elijah, and drinking wine from his cup.

    Blessings as you consider which place at the table is your own. Maybe your place is the one that seems to call to you on any given day?


    • Hi Shirley.
      I hope you had a wonderful break. I’ll visit your blog this week to find out how it went.
      I know the empty place metaphor well. Although I’ve only been to three or four Seders, the empty place and the child opening the door to welcome in the unknown or the stranger stick with me.
      Nothing feels quite right at the dining room table except when others sit with me. We humans like to eat with others, but it is good to be more conscious of my avoidance behavior and realize there is still a knot of grief around shared food.
      Wishing you sunshine and flowers.

Leave a Reply