The Gift of Goodbye

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File

Not one of us is immune to loss. Most of the time we experience it with a knowledge that there is an end, more imminent or less, to a relationship, a friendship, or a life. We watch our grandparents and parents slowly deteriorate – aware of our own eventual deterioration and mortality – and slowly, as time passes, we begin saying goodbye. We begin to prepare.

The same holds true for relationships. That friendship where time and investment begins to wane, the lover who seems more and more distant or distracted, and finally, the overall loss of intimacy, companionship, and confidence dissolves the bond. As much as it hurts, in the end, we can and do prepare for these inevitabilities as soon as we begin to notice them. The long preparation, the ritualistic self-preservation that is being able to say goodbye.

There are other times, far fewer in life if you are lucky, where there is no slow degradation, of the person or of a relationship’s promises. Everything and every possibility of one person is taken away in an instant. A cold, slow, agonizing instant. In death, this might be from suicide, an accident, or a sudden medical emergency. Yet we also lose people like this in life, relationships that have lasted for years suddenly interrupted by ghosting – which is hardly limited to hook-up apps.

The lover breaks it off, no explanation, and is gone. The friend, of decades, suddenly turns non-responsive to any and all communication. There isn’t the sting of death, but the inability to say goodbye in all of these circumstances leaves an open wound of heartbreak that never heals without some lasting damage, some psychic scar on our hearts and minds.

This comes from the ripping away of this relationship, this bond, from those inner parts of us that we open up only to the few we trust. This isn’t the slow, meticulous, and surgical process of a long goodbye, anchored by time and understanding. This is the quick, violent amputation of someone who has become a piece of us, and the remaining wound is jagged, slow to heal, and forever a haunting reminder – a reminder of what we might have done wrong, what we might have said, or whether anything could have been done to preserve the relationship. And we will continue to agonize over these questions for a lifetime.

The normal parameters, the rates at which we experience the long versus fast version of loss, have been upended during the pandemic, setting new and blighting norms for our lives and our hearts. Family has new reason to drop their parents, siblings, and even children in a heartbeat. Relationships are suddenly sacrificed at an altar of medical moralizing. Friendships, romantic relationships, all suffering some sharp decline, and the inexplicably immediate absence of what was once a strong mutual affection and reliance.

Worse, what often would have been a slow death, a death far off in time, or one where there could be a presence – essential to the healing and processing of grief – for the dying as well as those who love the dying, has been denied. Either by the illness, or worse, the systems and people put in place to manage the public health response. Many of these officials, often limited by protocols laser-focused on one thing, had to prohibit the presence of loved ones with the dying. The dying themselves were denied that last precious time with those they love, the physical touch and comfort, the closure they both need, and that they know they wish to give to those who will grieve their loss.

If this wasn’t horror enough, we denied the grieving even more. The dead not only died without dignity; they were buried without it – oftentimes while those imposing such devastating restrictions on those in grave sorrow played and flaunted their own rules.

We have prevented goodbyes. Goodbyes that give peace and comfort, that help us heal as they help others pass. Goodbyes that, once the grief of that lost person or relationship has resolved, leave us with memories we can visit with some form of contentment, if not enjoyment. Instead, the damage done by these sudden losses, losses with no goodbyes allowed, will forever taint the memories.

We will always remember the lost grandparent or parent with a tinge of deep guilt mingled with seething anger; what could have been done, what should have been done, and why. The dropped friendship, even, remaining with us as we wonder what could have broken such a strong bond without explanation, how we’ve lost something so dear and precious to us.

That’s why, as we go into the New Year, I am imploring you to look forward with an understanding of how much we each need goodbyes. They are important, in life and death, and while we are alive, we can give these goodbyes to others. Even if a relationship must end, as many naturally do, love that person enough, or remember the love you had for them once, to give them the gift of a goodbye, of closure, of a wound that can one day heal, and a friendship that can one day be remembered with joy. So many goodbyes have been taken from each of us. Let’s strive to not take them away from anyone else.