The Importance of Goodbyes

By Reverend Jay Libby

Saying GoodbyeA lot of people seem to avoid saying goodbye whenever possible. In any social situation they’ll happily slip out of a gathering or party silently without even a wave or a “see ya soon.” In current popular slang it’s called ghosting, though back in my day it was given the more culturally insensitive name – an Irish Goodbye.

There are many reasons people may choose to avoid a goodbye, to ghost each other. Saying goodbye can be difficult even in the most normal and routine of circumstances – like a party. Perhaps this is because it requires us to reveal something of ourselves to another person? Maybe some feel this opens us up to having to risk an exchange of feelings with another person that can feel awkward? We might, for example, have to express gratitude to a host and receive appreciation from them in return. Or worse, we might face another’s disappointment, disapproval or sadness that we’re leaving and even have to acknowledge and reveal our own feelings of sadness. Ugh! Better one might think to just make a clean break and duck out the back door!

If saying goodbye in a familiar social situation, such a party, is hard for a lot of people, it’s not hard to imagine that many seem to find it near impossible to say goodbye when it comes to illness and death. The emotions are so much greater. Our sense of being vulnerable that much more frightening. We fear saying the wrong thing or saying anything at all. Will we use the right words? What if the other person gets upset? We also shy away from the depth of emotion that we feel at these times, having to acknowledge the great love we have for the other person or the deep sadness that they are leaving us for good. It’s just all too much.

Yet, hospice workers like nurses, social workers and chaplains do everything they can to encourage these goodbyes, as hard as the conversations can be. There are many reasons for this, but one is to help prepare family members and loved ones to experience the grief they will feel after someone dies. As the past two years of the pandemic have shown us time and time again it’s harder to let go of someone we love when we haven’t had a proper chance to say goodbye.

Grief over a loved one’s death is never going to be easy, yet it is often that much worse when we are deprived of the closure that comes with goodbye. Like getting out of bed on a cold morning, it’s so much easier when we can slowly come out from under the warmth of our blankets than it is to have the blankets ripped of us and all the lights turned on.

I can attest to this in my own life. My mother died suddenly at the breakfast table three years ago. I had last talked to her the week before after a family wedding when I had tucked her into her bed. I said good night and I love you without any thought that this could be or would be the last time I would say goodbye to her. The death of a close family member and the grief that comes with it is painful in any circumstance, though I feel as if the sharp edge of that pain has been worse for me since I never got to say a real goodbye. A goodbye where I could have told her how much I loved her, cared for her, respected her and appreciated her.

After all this, it seems that we should take goodbyes more seriously and treat them as the important part of life and relationships that they are. We should never take for granted or miss the chance of saying goodbye whether it’s leaving someone’s house or when we are about to lose them forever.