At first blush, you wouldn’t think this would be a big deal. Or, you’d think it would be easy to do. You’d think people would just get it. But boy, that rarely seems to be the case.
How you say goodbye to important people in your life powerfully shapes their entire experience of you and your relationship. If you’re remotely interested in encouraging people and strengthening ties when your life calls you to say goodbye–whatever the transition is–please read on.
The Big Argument
One of my favorite graduate school professors, Dr. Michael Mangis, really brought this home to me in one of his classes about twenty years ago. He said something like, “how you say goodbye shapes the person’s entire experience of the relationship.” My initial response was, how could that be? The passage of time has only deepened my appreciation for how true that statement is.
The Life of Robin Williams
Let’s start with one really sad example. Think about Robin Williams for a minute. Before his tragic suicide, you probably thought about him a lot like I did. I would think about his amazing gifts, and how masterfully he played his various roles with genuine warmth and remarkable humor. Whether it was the housekeeper he played in Mrs. Doubtfire, the genie in Aladdin, the therapist in Good Will Hunting, or Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies, your main impressions, like mine, would probably be something like: Man he is so funny. Or he is such a great actor. You would be inclined to believe, like I did, that he must have such an incredible life. I bet he’s just awesome to be around.
Then, in a moment of terrible despair, after apparently a long, hard fought battle with depression, he takes his own life.
When I heard about it, I felt so sad, and all of a sudden the entire way I looked at him and his life significantly changed. I couldn’t help it, really. Instead of just remembering him with great warmth, fondness and respect, (had he passed of natural causes), all of a sudden, and especially when I see him in one of his films, I can’t help but think about how sad it must’ve been to be him at times. How much his humor was likely often a cover for terrible depression and some kind of deep insecurity. And, how painful it has to be for his children and other folks who were close to him. Because of how he left his life, because of how he ended up saying goodbye, dramatically impacts my ultimate experience of him. It just seems to be a deep human truth.
What is true with Robin and how he left, I think has significant overlap with how we say goodbye in smaller transitions and of course the ultimate transition, death.
The Power of How We Say Goodbye
When I think about my experience in congregations and organizations, or in my coaching or therapy work with clients, how well organizations, how well people say goodbye, profoundly impacts the recipient’s sense for their worth or value.
Churches and Saying Goodbye
I think about how when a church doesn’t say goodbye well to members who have been really important to the congregation, how those members can often feel like their presence wasn’t really that important, even when it actually was. And, when I’m a member of the congregation like that, it makes me sad because I didn’t have a chance, and the congregation didn’t have a chance to really honor them with a good goodbye.
On the other hand, if that same person leaves, and is celebrated, it is such a powerful blessing to the person and to the church, because it is explicitly saying you matter and people matter. It only affirms people and strengthens ties when we say goodbye well.
Friendships and Saying Goodbye
I trust you are starting to get the point here. I know in my own life, and I imagine it’s true in yours as well, when I have a strong goodbye with a close friend it helps me feel more filled up with love, and helps me trust even more the good that was nurtured in the friendship.
When the goodbye has gone poorly, it is simply painful. All the good times start to be called in the question, because the ending was so inconsistent with the friendship. And ultimately, my interpretation of the person has to change in what can only be called a negative way, when I realize the person just couldn’t be who I thought they were.
Work and Saying Goodbye
And of course this applies to work as well. If a person invests years, perhaps decades at an organization, and gets a superficial goodbye, like a lame banquet and a cheap watch, it says in effect says we don’t care that deeply about you.
But, if the organization really works to create a meaningful and special goodbye, it can be such a blessing to all parties, especially the one leaving.
Jesus and Saying Goodbye
You might have thought of this already, but it’s really cool how Jesus said goodbye. After showing up a number of times to truly let the disciples and others know that he had risen from the dead, just before he leaves he tells his disciples he has a super important job for them to do (make disciples), and then he says goodbye by saying the words that resonate deep in our hearts even today…. “And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” That must have been so profoundly comforting and encouraging to them. What a beautiful way to say goodbye.
How to Say Goodbye Well
It had to come down to this. How can you say goodbye well. It really is pretty straightforward. This is about taking the time and expressing through words and perhaps through gestures, (like a meaningful gift), how much you have appreciated their presence in your life, how much you have valued them and their gifts, and how much you’re going to miss them. If you can be emotionally present while you say it, that much the better.
Perhaps the biggest issue is, to pray for the grace and the courage to do it. So often, I think people don’t say goodbye because they think it will hurt too much, or that it will make the other person uncomfortable. That is such tragic reasoning.
Just Say It
I encourage you to take risks as led by the Holy Spirit, to honor and bless the people that you need to say goodbye to regardless of the nature of the transition. And as you step out into that space, may you sense God’s delight in you as you reflect His heart.