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Goodbyes Are Important but We Didn’t Know to Say Goodbye

How do we say goodbye to what was?

Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev on Unsplash
Woman outside in snow holding out notes that say "good" and "bye"
Source: Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev on Unsplash

When many of us packed up mid-March to try to get ahead of the alarming new virus that didn’t yet have a name, we couldn’t begin to imagine the magnitude of what was happening. Had we known, we would have said goodbye. Goodbye to our colleagues, our teachers and students, our therapists and patients, our 8 a.m. baristas and building doormen. Goodbye to our routines, jobs, and life as we knew it.

On Saying Goodbye

Most of us have a sense that goodbyes are important even if we avoid them sometimes because they’re hard or awkward. Saying goodbye allows us to put words to feelings, shape how we remember someone, codify our choices, and frame distinct periods of time. In short, goodbyes give us a sense of closure as we move into the next phases of our lives.

Schwörer, Krott, and Oettingen (2020) found across seven different studies that "well-rounded endings”—those marked by a sense of closure—were associated with positive affect, relatively little regret, and an easier transition into the next life phase.

For example, in one of the studies of exchange students, the more well-rounded the endings at the end of a visit abroad, the more positive the students felt afterwards, the less regret they experienced about having missed out on opportunities, and the easier it was for them to settle into their home again.

On NOT Saying Goodbye

If we don’t get to say goodbye, resolution is harder to come by. We may never fully resolve the separation, and may find ourselves in a perpetual state of mourning, wondering what could have been. We may be left with feelings of regret, anger, confusion and guilt.

Alternatively, it can feel like the relationship, event, or time period almost never happened. When a good friend leaves without saying goodbye, we might wonder if they ever really cared about us and conclude that it wasn’t an important relationship after all. In other words, endings matter and are often what we remember. A formal or informal goodbye synthesizes the form and texture—the melody, rhythm, and harmony if you will—of our experiences into a ballad we can carry with us in our minds.

On Unusual Goodbyes

When cities and towns suddenly shut down in early Spring, there were no goodbye parties, festive meals or trips to the airport; no stories, hugs, and mixed emotions measured in laughter and tears. Instead, we scuttled off to isolate at our private homes or our parents’ homes, waiting in limbo for things to get back to usual. But with winter looming and little normalcy in sight, we can no longer pretend it’s still late March.

As furloughs turn into layoffs, some of us won’t be going back to jobs and face a loss of health insurance or worse. Those of us who are lucky enough to still have jobs are seeing our professions change in ways we never imagined. Therapy, for example, is 100% remote for many therapists like me and is unlikely to ever be fully in-person again. As with all change, there are pros and cons. While I’m glad this makes mental health treatment more accessible to many, I worry therapeutic relationships will become impersonal and therefore less effective; that the distance we get from a phone or screen may create a false sense of safety so that the trials and tribulations of real intimacy are never fully tested; that the energy and resonance that arises from two people in a room together will fall flat.

And it’s not just COVID that has changed things. The killing of George Floyd, along with countless others, has led to a national discussion not just of police brutality, but of the inequity running through every fiber of our society. Part of changing that, as we ethically must, means recognizing where people of color have been excluded. Professional worlds are shifting to make room for more diverse and representative populations.

The theatre world provides us a good example of the widespread and unexpected transformation that characterizes 2020. Hobbled programmatically and financially by the pandemic, the theater world has also been called on to reconstitute itself in less racist ways. Resignations and restructuring will hopefully mean talented people historically overlooked will be given a fairer shake. The world is changing for the better in that way. But even positive change can mean difficult adjustments. Those who didn’t realize the house/profession/nation needed renovating because the foundation was faulty didn’t know to say goodbye.

Our endings deserve the same ritual and respect we give our beginnings. For performance artist Marina Abramovic and her partner Ulay, what started as an idea for a marriage that never materialized became their goodbye to each other and their 12-year relationship. Walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, they met in the middle to bid a final farewell. Such a dramatic and bountiful goodbye isn’t necessary for closure, but walking toward someone or something in order to more easily walk away is poignant symbolism.

If we are to grow, embracing change is not optional. But when change is unforeseen as it has been for so many people this year, how do we gain the closure needed for a better state of mind to move forward? Like high school graduations that became car parades and 40th birthday celebrations that became Zoom toasts, we need creativity and courage to create psychologically valuable goodbyes. We can bake ourselves an intricate goodbye cake, gather letters from former coworkers for a memory book, or put up a soap box in the park where we can gather, socially distanced, with strangers to commiserate about what we miss most. We can call our moms, our friends or our therapists and talk about it until it makes sense. Making peace with what no longer is is essential because the most painful goodbyes are the ones never processed.

More from Jo-Ann Finkelstein Ph.D.
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