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5 Ways to Make Goodbyes Less Painful

There are better ways to manage the sadness and anxiety of separation.

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Goodbyes are in the air. Maybe you're moving, ending a relationship—or even a marriage, or struggling with the death of a loved one. Maybe you're changing jobs and leaving years of connections behind. Maybe your children are leaving for camp, with fresh tears on all sides. Maybe the kids are coming home after equally tearful goodbyes with new and old friends. Maybe you have an older kid starting college, saying goodbye to you and their childhood playmates. Maybe you see interns leaving your office after a summer of bonding. Or maybe your annual vacation trip is ending, forcing you to bid farewell to total relaxation for another year.

Obviously, I’m describing very different kinds of goodbyes.

But from the sublime to the mundane, the simple to the complicated, farewells are an inevitable part of life. They can be incredibly painful—but they don’t have to be devastating. And here’s something important to know: If you’re having a hard time with any kind of goodbye, you’re not alone.

We start learning how to deal with being left early in life, of course. And as with just about everything else in life, the best way to help a child learn to manage separations is to start with small, tolerable ones. Parents do this automatically, perhaps without even realizing it, many times a day—when they tuck a toddler into bed and say goodnight, or leave him or her with a babysitter. Happy experiences with these manageable separations, coupled with regular and pleasurable reunions, help a child develop the capacity to deal with more painful—and inevitable—separations later in life. Interestingly, even unpleasant separations can aid in this development. For instance, if a parent is able to both acknowledge a child’s feelings and also provide ways to soothe them, both before they leave and after they return, the child will learn more separation coping skills.

If, as is true for many of us, you didn’t acquire these skills during your own childhood, the trick is to build your capacity to manage the feelings now, as an adult. This is more easily said than done, but the best way is to start with small, manageable steps.

For example, in anticipation of a pending goodbye due to a move, divorce, or child leaving home, spend some time getting comfortable doing things by yourself: Go to a movie, take a long walk, or go out for a meal on your own. Make it a pleasant experience—a movie you really want to see or a restaurant you want to try—or try a new exercise or yoga class by yourself.

The year before my son left for college, I started taking piano lessons. It was something I had thought about for years, but life had always gotten in the way—and I was afraid to find out how bad I would be! As preparation for having more time on my hands, and to remind myself that there were some positive aspects to this upcoming separation, I called his old piano teacher—the most supportive piano teacher I could imagine. With much anxiety, and lots of teasing from my family, I started lessons. Not only did this simple act reinforce my sense that I would have a life after motherhood, it also had a surprising side effect: Practicing the piano is now packed into my suitcase of self-soothing activities.

That leads to my next point: Many of us are short on these tools for soothing ourselves in the face of painful experiences. In order to cope with goodbyes big and small, we need ways to make ourselves feel better. Listening to music, taking a walk, watching a movie, talking to a friend, writing about your feelings—all of these are small but important techniques for soothing painful feelings. And sometimes everything you’ve packed into your own personal suitcase has to be pulled out and used, if only briefly, to manage your feelings as you say goodbye.

Here are some other guidelines for managing goodbyes.

  1. Recognize that mixed feelings are normal. You are not crazy if you are both sad and excited about a child’s leaving for college, and both worried about your own future (who are you now?) and imagining some of the things you can do with your new free time, all at once. You're just experiencing the feelings of loss and anticipation that are part of almost every life transition. The tricky thing is to find a way to make space for all of these conflicting and sometimes contradictory feelings. But the more you do open yourself up to the different emotions, the more you will be able to process the more painful ones.
  2. Similarly, feeling sad about leaving one situation, or anxious about moving into another, does not necessarily mean that you have made the wrong decision. Most of us have these feelings about even the best possible moves in our lives. In fact, the time that I worry about a possible problem is usually when a client tells me about an upcoming change without talking about some of the conflicts about it.
  3. Try to put all of your confusing feelings into words. Talk to a friend or a relative, but set the stage first, so that they don't get worried that you have either gone off the deep end or (more likely) made the wrong decision. Tell them that you are trying to sort out your contradictory feelings, and you just would like them to listen (unless of course you say something that genuinely makes them think you're forgetting to pay attention to something important).
  4. Whether you are leaving a semester abroad, a house or neighborhood, a school or university, a job or a relationship, try to give yourself a little time to reflect on both the good and bad aspects of the experience. Do not try to pack in everything you have not done or everything you meant to do in the short time you have left. And try not to turn it into an all-bad experience in your mind, something you are eager to get away from because it has been nothing but negative. This may make it easier to justify leaving in the short term, but will have problematic consequences down the line.
  5. Whether you are saying goodbye because of life changes, illness and death, or the end or a relationship, give yourself time to adjust. Loss is painful and takes time to ease. Nothing will be right in the beginning. But try not to take an all-or-nothing attitude. The past may suddenly take on all sorts of positive or negative attributes you didn't give it while you were in it. This is normal. But try not to take these images too literally. We almost always look behind us with memories that are less complex than the actual experiences. Don't be taken in by either a completely rosy or dark memory. And remind yourself that your present situation will change over time. Give it a chance. And give yourself a chance to adjust to the differences.

Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), offers numerous self-soothing tools in her book, Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. My PT colleague, Guy Winch, also offers great ideas in his book Emotional First Aid.

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More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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