Elaine* and her husband were going on their first overnight alone since the birth of their child 10 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!”
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 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 him 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, a house, a job, a marriage or a dying loved one, 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 good night to avoid their heartbreaking sobs, or whether you spend an extra 40 minutes explaining that you’ll be back (even though you haven't actually left), you may be missing an important point — and an important lesson.
Humans are hard-wired to connect, as years of attachment research have 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 being cared for by their parents. So children cling to their parents, and parents have appropriate responses 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. 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. 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 1990s, 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 — that the child is well-cared for and well-loved while the parent is away, and that the separation is for a length of time appropriate to the child’s age and developmental capacity
These same basic rules apply to college students. Some 18-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 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 reach a certain age — it can be hard to make a decision that is right for your child and your family.
But learning to say goodbye is an important life lesson, one that we keep having to learn again and 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 reaction may be different in each case. One important part of the 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 as though it were another time in your life? For both Elaine and Lou (above), 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 perhaps less than optimal childhood separations or your college experiences, good or 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; try to be open to her experiences, rather than superimposing your own onto her.
3. Sometimes it is a relief to say goodbye, and that’s okay.
The end of a hard task, a painful relationship, or a difficult illness can be a release. That’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.
Sometimes relief goes hand in hand with sadness, guilt, and even anger. But even when you're feeling nothing but sadness, pain, hurt, and longing, it is important to soothe yourself as much as possible, while also allowing the bad feelings to move through you. Mindfulness guru Thich Nhat Hanh tells us to treat the feelings like guests: 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, suggests thinking 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 can also 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 with splitting up, a couple can find a way to reconnect and remember some of the things they once appreciated about each other, even though they no longer 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 through them. In other words, it is extremely important not to get stuck in a single set of feelings.
5. Finally, remember: Goodbyes are part of life.
They can’t be avoided, 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.”
* 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.
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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.
For managing feelings:
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991) Peace with Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. New York: Bantam Books.
For managing feelings:
Hayes, S., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. (1999). Acceptance and
Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change.
New York: The Guilford Press.
For managing feelings:
Guy Winch, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Their Everyday Hurts New York: Plume, 2014.
Barth, F.D. (1989). Separation‑individuation, sense of self, and bulimia in college students. In L.Whitaker & W.N. Davis (Eds.) The bulimic college student: Evaluation, treatment and prevention. New York, NY and London, England: The Haworth Press,