In 2004, my best friend passed away rather suddenly. It shook my world and left me in a daze that I have never experienced before or since. It was as if my life had shifted to a new timeline and I couldn’t imagine how things could move forward.
Complicating matters was the fact that I had just started a new job when it happened. So, rather than being the overly eager new guy who was trying to ingratiate himself to everyone, I became the quiet guy who spent his breaks blankly staring out the window. I was conscious of that fact and although I had always placed a high importance on my public perception, I was too numb to care.
I didn’t hide what was going on in my life, though, and, if asked, I spoke about it openly. I told a co-worker about all that I was dealing with and she offered some words that showed she could relate.
Losing someone is really hard. A few years back, my sister passed away.
Immediately, I felt as though I was being overdramatic. Through force of habit, I minimized my grief and realized that this woman had a far worse story than mine. Instinctively, I apologized.
I’m sorry. I know it’s not like losing a brother or sister…
She stopped me before I could finish my thought and said something I’ll never forget.
Oh no. I think it’s usually much worse actually. Family you’re born into. Close friends are the people you pick yourself.
Sadly, I don’t remember this woman’s name and barely worked with her while I was there. But her advice has stuck with me for over a decade and brings me comfort during times when I lose sight of what family truly is.
Without going into detail, I will say that my holidays aren’t spent with many of the people you’d expect to be there. My wife, kids, and I are very lucky to have the amazing family members and friends who are in our lives today. But, through the years, there have definitely been times when I relate to those who feel a sense of absence during special days. It can often feel painful to see commercials urging you to remember how important “family” is during the holidays when many of those designated roles in your life are left empty for whatever reason. I know personally how it can bring you down.
Then I think back to 2004. I think about those words and what they meant to me at the time. I remember what “family” really means.
Family is a deep word. It’s like love, dreams, or potential. You don’t use it as a one-off phrase for one set thing. It has meanings within meanings and can be altered depending on how it fits into your life. It’s not simply a set group of people assigned to different branches and connected by blood or marriage. It’s about the people you choose to share your happiest moments with out of love, not obligation, whether you share common relatives or not.
The people you serve holiday dinners to or blow out candles with are the ones who make your day special. Just because they didn’t give birth to you or marry your doofy cousin Terry doesn’t make them any less important in your life. In fact, it makes them more important. You chose them and they chose you. They’re here because they want to be while others might be there for a different reason or maybe not even at all.
Every day, people box themselves into corners when it comes to these labels. They turn down invitations because they don’t want to impose. They give a turned down glance and a mumbled, “No, it’s OK. You go ahead and spend the day with your family. I’ll be fine.” It takes a moment that should about inclusion and celebration and turns into a private event that even an invitation can’t penetrate. It goes against the whole concept of what family is.
If you have empty seats at your dinner table and you don’t mind, then by all means leave them empty. Don’t fill them out of some sort of social expectation. That’s completely your choice. But if you don’t like seeing them empty, fill them. Reach out to people and invite them into your life. Sure, they might be gone tomorrow, but for that time, they’re family.
Of course, they might not be gone tomorrow. They could stick around forever. Heck, they could end up being around longer than some so-called “real family”. You never know unless you ask.
Once you let go of the notion that only certain people in certain spots in your life can be designated as family members, the world feels more inclusive than ever before. Don’t focus on those who aren’t there. Focus on those you want there. Embrace the family you have and find the one you don’t. They’re out there.