Rising to the Challenge of Saying Goodbye

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Life is a series of endings. Losses, separations, and terminations are just part of the deal. It’s that way even when it seems like your life is at a standstill. Just pay close enough attention and you can observe the relentless arising, existing, and passing of the elements of your moment-to-moment experience.

Of course, the inevitable endings are good news when it comes to things you don’t like, but the satisfaction of relief in those cases probably won’t impact you as much as the sting of separating from things you like.

When it comes to losing people, you face an especially significant impact. Beyond losing something pleasant, when you say goodbye to a loved one, you expose the tender spot inside where you’d placed the other person, the way a bandage removed too quickly can take some of your flesh with it. Not that your close connections are necessarily there to heal wounds (although they can); it’s that close connection creates a certain adhesion at the boundary.

Close relationships may not complete you, but they do complete a circuit that enables you to participate fully in the human experience. Having one and then losing it can feel like frolicking in the cool water of an oasis in one moment, and in the next, the pool draining into the desert, taking your security along with it, and leaving you scanning the horizon, disoriented, and afraid of becoming parched.

Inasmuch as you construct your sense of self through your interactions with others, you can be shaken right down to your core if you’re close enough to the person, feeling an existential loneliness and wondering what will become of you.*

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You and your close ties are not unlike two adjacent plants in a greenhouse: sharing proximity, similar tastes in nutrients and water, and room to grow, your roots become entwined. When the time comes for separating and replanting, some unavoidable trauma to the roots will occur.

But with care, the trauma will be minimized, the old soil knocked off, and each will find a fresh batch of soil, and some new neighbors. The flower analogy only goes so far, though, because what’s nurturing you is the other flower as much as the soil.

The inevitable farewell

I’ve said lots of goodbyes in recent years. My father died, and the final goodbye I said while he lived has become one of those distinct memories that I’ll carry forever. But the silent goodbyes continue, along with promises and introspection, whenever I remember him and his influence on my life, which is often.

Over the past couple of months, I also bade farewell to dozens of clients and colleagues with whom I’d worked closely for years, as I transitioned from agency-based work to a full-time focus on writing and coaching for the Right Life Project.

It left me bruised; a process made no less heart-wrenching by the fact that the separations were voluntary and, in a sense, tentative, relative to those mandated by death.

Those separations have meant a lot of bandages removed, a lot of neighboring flowers uprooted, and serious disruptions to the emotional water supply, for me and the other (living) people involved. Yet, that’s the way it goes: loss and hurt are supposed to happen.

Like it or not (and forgive me for being a Debbie Downer), you will be separated from all of the people you care about some day, one way or another. If William Butler Yeats was correct, that strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet, then the logical and necessary extension is that a stranger is just someone who hasn’t yet made it to your goodbye list.

But that fact doesn’t make it pointless to begin again.

The hello-goodbye combo

It’s a brave thing, saying hello, knowing that the beginning comes prepackaged with an ending. It’s a challenge unique to humans, and because of that, beginnings also come prepackaged with an inherent reward: fulfilling your human potential in a way that has no substitute.

Withstanding the pain of separation and then carrying on doesn’t just make your heart stronger and more resilient, like a workout routine. It’s allowing your heart to achieve full functionality (and you must not let the fear of future separation cheat you out of that).

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When you part ways with someone, you are just tuning into one instance of the constant flow of beginnings and endings that you are weathering all the time—it’s just more readily apparent because of its emotional wallop. For this reason, your loss of another person can be a good training ground for one of the most important skills needed for a satisfying life: letting go. Releasing the need for things to stay the same, when that just isn’t going to happen, ever.

Letting go, but not leaving behind, because how could you? Just as your DNA is encoded with data that influence your life from birth, each connection you make with another encodes memories, lessons, and preferences, and all manner of other factors that remain, without you even having to try to keep them. The boundary, where you separated, will forever bear the marks of the connection that came first.

As unpleasant as it may be; as evocative of your aloneness as an individual being as it may be, your job when you say goodbye is to meet that physical ending with acceptance, and bring awareness to the legacy of the other that will endure within you.

To use the rest of your time to honor the connection you did have by nurturing, with your intentions and actions, the seeds left by the other. Then, to keep your heart open and soft, and your eyes open for the next oasis.*
As Schopenhauer put it, “every parting gives a foretaste of death; every coming together again a foretaste of the resurrection.”