Say Goodbye, Damn It

I wrote this a while ago.  But as we start a new year, I think it's important to wrap up any unfinished business from the old before moving on to the new.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Many years ago, before I went to grad school, I worked at a psychiatric treatment center with adolescent girls.  It was the job that changed the course of my life, but that's another story.  Before they left the treatment center, the girls were allowed to set up "goodbye talks" with friends.  I don't think any of the girls I was monitoring ever actually said "goodbye" during their talks.  Instead they used the time to talk or hang out.   Why, I wondered. Maybe they didn't know how to say goodbye, or maybe it's just too painful.

Thinking about it now, and seeing how badly I  handled opportunities to end relationships with dignity, I think both are true.  I also believe that two of our major life tasks are learning how to say "hello," or welcome people into our lives, and "goodbye," or letting go with grace.  This makes me think of a story I read recently.  Sandra Bem, feminist psychologist and pioneer in gender roles research, committed suicide earlier this year.  Sandra had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 5 years ago.  Early in the disease, Sandra decided that she wanted to end her life before the disease took away everything she held dear.  She talked about her decision with friends and family, bringing it up on occasion to help the people she loved come to terms with her decision and her death.  As she continued to decline, Sandra picked a date. The Sunday before, friends and family gathered in her living room to recount special memories and her accomplishments over the years, most of which she had forgotten.  Having her life mirrored to her by loved-ones was powerful for everyone there.  On the night of her death, Sandra took the cocktail she had ordered while her husband was out of the room.  She then called him in, and asked him to hold her while she died.  During this time, friends and family were at a friend's house making dinner and comforting each other.  

Regardless of how you feel about suicide, this was an amazing goodbye.  The comfort and support available to everyone was profound.  And everyone had the opportunity to say what they needed to say and to get closure without regrets.  This goodbye was epic.  Thankfully, most of the goodbyes we encounter in life are not about the death of a loved one.  How do we manage those?

Years ago, I was in a group with a man who had a huge impact on my life.  We were in group together for a long time and had developed a deep bond.  In group therapy, the relationships you develop are for therapeutic purposes not social.  Therefore, these bonds can be very intense and life altering.  So it came time for me to leave group, and I needed to have my "goodbye talks."  When it was his turn to say goodbye to me, my friend wrote me the most beautiful note on the back of a picture of his daughter, stating how much the relationship meant to him.  When it was my turn, I had very little to give him.  To this day, I regret not having brought more of myself to the process.  What happened?  I think I was not ready to let the relationship go.  It felt too sad, and I avoided facing this very important moment.  I still have regret. 

So what could it look like?  Share memories, talk about both the good times and bad.  State what you will miss, and how that person has impacted your life.  Make amends, say you're sorry for mistakes you've made and hurts you might have caused.  Put it all on the table, and say "goodbye."  Walk away with longing and sadness, but no regrets.