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Nancy K Schlossberg Ed.D.

Say Goodbye: Create a Ritual

Rituals help you leave the past and move toward the future.

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Source: google image may be copyrighted

Maria reported “My life with my partner is being lived on two levels. On the one hand, it is very pleasant and I have built a company. On the other, I cannot or do not share my thoughts about ending or changing our relationship. Part of me is afraid to bring up the topic; part of me is not sure I want to do it. I am living in a state of ambivalence.”

Jules described his last day at work as a Washington, DC policeman. “I turned in my gun and badge, and that was that.” The Department spokesperson thanked him, shook his hand and he left, feeling deflated and depressed.

Sam expressed shock when he learned that his job was being eliminated in a Reduction In Force (RIF). “I assumed I would be here forever. I loved my work and also loved being part of the theatre group. I feel like I’ve lost everything.” Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, announced his surprise retirement explaining that his desire to spend more time with his family.

We all say goodbye to friends, family, lovers, jobs and to those who have died. But do we understand how to handle goodbyes with grace, compassion, and kindness? Sarah Lawrence-Light, Harvard professor and author of Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free, studied the process of disengaging from a role that has been central to your identity. It is a period with many ups and downs that includes conflicting feelings, including unresolved anger and/or guilt. According to sociologist Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, author of Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit, there is a process that many go through as they take leave: first doubts, then weighing alternatives, followed by the turning point, and finally the establishment of an ex-role. The important point—it is a process over time during which your self-image changes from being an employee, partner, wife, lover to being someone without that role. It can take months to go through the process. It can be a “messy” process and does not always follow a linear path.

Although there is no magic exit strategy, consider the following:

1. Experience your grief for the life that’s ending; acknowledge your fear of what’s to be.

2. Identify your emotional response. Do you feel guilty about ending a relationship? Are you angry that someone else ended a relationship with you? If you cannot let go of these feelings, think about talking to a counselor, therapist, or support group.

3. Develop a ritual that acknowledges the tug between your past and future. It will provide an opportunity to grieve for what is lost and look forward to what’s next. A personal example: I will never forget the morning our daughter, Karen a high school senior, came bursting into our bedroom to announce that she had decided to go to work, move into her own apartment and not attend college. Coincidentally, that very morning, I attended a speech by the late sociologist Barbara Myerhoff who discussed the importance of rituals during "marginal periods" when shifting from one phase of life to another. She used the case of eighteen-year-olds moving out of their parental home. I could not believe that she talked about what I was experiencing. I left the speech, called my husband immediately and said: “ I know how we need to handle this.”

Based on her speech, we decided to ritualize Karen’s departure celebrating dinner with our closest family friends. We chose gifts and wrote poems to commemorate her past and celebrate her future. We promised to pay for phone installation, which would connect Karen to her past—but expected her to pay the monthly phone charges, connecting her to her future. And that is the point of a ritual to acknowledge that you are leaving one part of your life but have not quite moved to the next phase. Sam and the other men whose jobs were eliminated need a ritual to help them move through their grief and figure out next steps.

Rituals can also help make sense of senseless things. A woman I know lost her father in the Vietnam War. He is Missing In Action. She discussed the pain of not ever knowing. She keeps hoping and wondering. To promote healing and offer support, two veterans started a motorcycle group that goes across the country to draw attention to those missing in action. “Run For The Wall.” This ritual has grown. The woman whose father is lost finds this group ritual comforting and she looks forward to it. She says goodbye to her father each year. Meyeroff talks about the importance of group activity, in this case, group solidarity.

4. Develop your own ritual. Brainstorm a ritual designed for a transition you are experiencing. It can be sending balloons out in space, a walk on the beach with close friends, writing a short play about your transition. It needs to be something that will focus on the past and future.

And in conclusion: Rituals help you deal with the pain of saying goodbye. They are particularly helpful when you are betwixt and between. According to Myeroff, “rituals punctuate and clarify that otherwise amorphous condition.”

About the Author

Nancy Schlossberg, Ed.D., a Professor Emerita at University of Maryland , where she was a tenured full professor in the counseling psychology area for 28 years .She is the author of ten books, focusing on transitions.