Saying Goodbye? 5 Ideas for Emotionally Healthy Farewells

Elaine* and her husband were going on their first overnight alone since the birth of their child, ten months earlier.  “It’s only for one night,” Elaine said. “And my daughter loves being with her grandparents, who adore her. I know she’ll be well-cared for, and I know my husband and I need some time together. But it’s so hard to leave her!!!”

Source: zoeytoja / 123RF Stock Photo

Lou* and his wife were taking their oldest son to college. “I loved college,” Lou said. “He’s going to have a terrific time! My wife’s having some separation anxieties, but I just keep thinking about how great it’s going to be for him…only I do worry that our second son will be lonely without his older brother around. I remember that’s how I felt when my older sister, who I was very close to, left for school.”

Chen* was getting ready for a long-planned vacation. “I’m so excited,” she said. “But I’m a little sad, too. I feel bad about leaving my dog for two weeks. Her dog walker is going to stay in my apartment, and I know she’ll take good care of my boy; but I wonder if he’s going to miss me, if he’ll be lonely without me.  I hope not. That would make me so sad.”

Alicia* was moving into a new home. “It will be just wonderful,” she said. “But I feel sad about leaving the old house. It’s where my marriage started, and where my children have always lived. I want to say goodbye to it, and to let it know that the new owners will take good care of it. But I’m worried that they might not. And then I think that’s kind of crazy! I know it’s not a living thing with thoughts and feelings!!!”

Ben’s* dad was dying of cancer. Ben longed for some deeply meaningful words with his dad in their final days together, but neither of them was good with emotions. Instead they sat and watched television together.

Whether you’re saying goodbye to a child, a pet or a house, to a marriage or partnership, or to a loved one who is dying, farewells can be painful. And because they are so difficult, you may be tempted to avoid them. Avoidance can take many forms. There’s an old joke that some people say goodbye forever without leaving, and others leave without ever saying goodbye. But whether you disappear when the babysitter arrives, without telling your child goodbye, in order to avoid their heartbreaking sobs and begging you to stay, or whether you spend an extra forty minutes explaining that you’ll be back (but you actually haven’t left!!!), you may be missing an important point – and an important lesson in living for your child.

Humans are hard-wired to connect, as all of the attachment research has shown us. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that children and parents are particularly sensitive to separating from one another, since a child’s survival is pretty dependent on her being cared for by her parents. So children cling to their parents and parents have appropriate responders to that need, which keeps a child safe and protected.

However, emotionally and psychologically, children also need to have manageable, or what psychotherapists call “optimal” separation experiences in order to grow into healthy adulthood.  The child development specialist Margaret Mahler coined the term “separation-individuation” to explain how healthy separations help a child develop into an individual with an identity of his own, separate from his parents. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson showed how important this development of an identity of one’s own is throughout development, from adolescence through old age.

But in the 1990’s, attachment theorist Karla Lyons-Ruth shifted the prism on the individuation process, showing that a healthy identity emerges from healthy attachment. Healthy attachment, however, does not mean never saying goodbye. It means learning, from an early age, that goodbyes do not end a connection. Thus, it is important for a child to have the experience of parents leaving and coming back from an early age. The trick, of course, is to make sure that the separation is optimal. There are two basic things to keep in mind when trying to insure an optimal separation:

1) that the child is well-cared for and well-loved while the parent is away, and

2) that the separation is for a length of time that is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental capacity.

These same basic rules apply to college students as well. I’ve posted about this subject on this blog site and have written several articles about it, so I’ll just say briefly that some eighteen-year-olds are ready to leave home; others are not. Some are more equipped for independent living than others. In a world that seems to say that there is one correct decision for everyone – for example, that every teen should be ready to leave for college or that moms should not go to work until their children are a certain age – it can be hard to make a decision that is right for your child and your family.

Source: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

But learning to say goodbye is not only an important life lesson, but one that we keep having to learn over and over again.

Here are some suggestions for managing the goodbyes in your life.

1) Remember that goodbye is part of every life.

2) Not all separations are the same. Sometimes they are temporary. Sometimes they are permanent. Your reactions may be different in each case. One important part of the management process is to pay attention to the reality of the moment. Are you, for instance, treating a short-term separation as though it is permanent? If so, try to remind yourself of the difference. Or are you experiencing a moment in life as though it were another time in your life?  For both Elaine and Lou, feelings and memories of their own separations were coloring their ability to see how their children were feeling. This might be true for you, whether it involves reliving your own childhood separations (perhaps less than optimal) or your college experiences, good and bad. If this is happening, it can be helpful to tell yourself that your child’s life may have similarities to yours, but it will also be different; and to try to be open to her experiences, rather than to superimpose your own onto her.

3) Sometimes it is a relief to say goodbye, and that’s perfectly okay. The end of a hard task, a painful relationship, or a difficult illness can be a release. It’s a normal feeling. But often, it’s not the only feeling you will have. Chen, for instance, realized that one of the reasons she felt so bad about leaving her dog was that she was looking forward to not having him around all the time. “I love him,” she said, “but it is a lot of work walking him several times a day. And he needs a lot of attention.” When she acknowledged her relief, she also realized that she felt guilty. And then she saw that the guilt was feeding her anxiety about leaving. “He’ll be fine,” she said. “And so will I. And being away from him will make me happy to be back with him!”

4) Make room for lots of different emotions related to goodbyes. Sometimes relief goes hand in hand with sadness, guilt, and even anger. But even when you are feeling nothing but sadness, pain, hurt, and longing it is important to soothe yourself as much as possible, but also to allow the bad feelings to move through you. Mindfulness guru Thich Nhat Hanh tells us to treat the feelings like guests, so that they can come in and leave again. Let them know that they are not permanent residents. Stephen Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, says to think of unpleasant feelings as a train that you are watching pass by. They are there. They don’t feel good. They may come back again. But they are on the move. They will pass.

Pain is part of goodbye for some us. We also often confuse one feeling for another. For instance, when a marriage begins to fall apart, before we say genuine goodbyes, anger can replace disappointment and sadness and even loss. Sometimes, after the debris that comes along with splitting up, a couple can find a way to reconnect and to remember some of the things they once appreciated about each other, even though they do not want to be together. These complex feelings are part of the separation process for many people. What is important is to allow the feelings room to breathe and to allow yourself space to work them through. In other words, it is extremely important not to get stuck in a single set of feelings.  

5) And finally, let’s go back to the first idea: goodbyes are part of every life.  They can’t be avoided, no matter how hard you try. And there are good parts to goodbyes. They can represent temporary or permanent loss, but they also usher in transitions, new possibilities, and emotional and intellectual growth.  Ben, for instance, mourning the loss of his father, realized that he had discovered something important about the two of them. “We didn’t talk about the feelings,” he said, “but they were there. The love and the caring and the connection were all in the room with us as we sat together watching television. That’s pretty good. Maybe better than if we had tried to say something meaningful. I’ll always have that connection inside me.”

The more ways you and your family find to manage goodbyes optimally, the better are the chances for you to connect and to grow!

* Identifying information has been changed to protect privacy

Please note: I love to know what you think about what I’ve written, so please leave your comments below, and if you have questions about the content or the ideas in this or any other post, put them in your comments! If you’d like to get feedback from other commenters, feel free to ask them questions as well. However, it is not possible for me to respond to individual requests for personal advice through email or the Internet. Thanks so much for understanding. DB


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and keep a lookout for my new book, I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives, to be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 6, 2018


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