I recently said goodbye to a job I had for more than 4 years, a place where I did some of my initial training as a therapist and developed as a professional. As I said goodbye to colleagues who have become friends and work that I loved doing sadness, welled up in my chest. I felt the gravity of what I had experienced and done at that job along with the almost overwhelming gratitude for the love, joy, laughter, and growth that I experienced while working there. As I was saying “farewell” to my colleagues I understood why my clients so often avoid their emotions; our feelings can seem like too much to sit and be present with. I think this is part of why goodbyes can be so challenging for many of us. I am grateful that I was able to be present to these waves of emotion and to feel my feelings all the way through as a way of honoring the experience I had and the work I did. Saying goodbyes in healthy ways allows us to appreciate the experiences and relationships we’ve had, reflect and learn from what we have gone through, and move forward unencumbered by the past.
All of us say numerous “goodbye’s” throughout our life; when we end relationships, when we move, when we change jobs, and when people we love die, we are forced to let go and acknowledge that something is over. In Stillness Speaks Ekhart Tolle says that “every ending is like a little death.” I think this is another reason that people do not like to say goodbye because it can feel like a part of you is dying; goodbyes force us to acknowledge that despite our best efforts to hold on to things, nothing lasts forever. As Black people, some of us may have a difficult relationship with saying goodbye because of the trauma we have experienced. Whether it is a loved one dying unexpectedly, someone being locked up in prison unfairly, or the legacy of separation of families during slavery, it can be difficult for Black people to say healthy goodbyes while processing the trauma we experience.
So what does it look like when we avoid saying goodbye? Avoiding saying goodbye can look like blowing up your relationship by starting a fight or doing something hurtful to your partner because that feels easier than thoughtfully deciding to walk away from the relationship. Avoiding saying goodbye can look like denigrating the person or thing that you are saying goodbye to; it can feel a lot easier to leave your job if you have decided that it is bad. Avoiding saying goodbye can also look like diminishing the significance of a person or thing to your life; the hope is that the loss will seem inconsequential if you decide that it did not mean much to you. The consequence of this avoidance is that we end up holding on to the past and carrying it with us into the future. When we avoid goodbyes we fail to feel the mix of emotions that often arise when something ends. It is important to feel these emotions completely in order to be able to move forward in a healthy way. When we avoid our emotions they are likely to re-emerge in the future in unwanted ways.
In contrast, when we say goodbye in a healthy way we are able to reflect on what the person, experience, or place that we are leaving has meant to us. When we feel the sadness of the loss, we honor what we are letting go of. Below are my suggestions for strategies that will help you to say goodbye in healthy ways.
Acknowledge the Loss
Acknowledging the loss we are experiencing when we say goodbye to something is an important first step to a healthy goodbye. Acknowledging what we have lost can also involve acknowledging our disappointment that a situation did not turn out as we had hoped. In order to acknowledge the loss, take time to thoughtfully reflect on what the person, experience, or thing you are saying goodbye to has meant to you. What has it represented in your life? What role has the thing you are letting go of played in your life? What will you miss after saying goodbye? Acknowledging that you are experiencing a loss as you say goodbye allows you to accept the reality that something is over. Acknowledging the losses we’ve experienced can take the form of a practice or ritual. I believe that attending funerals and memorial services can be very helpful in the grieving process. You may find it helpful to journal about the loss or writing what you want to release on a piece of paper and then burning it to help with this process.
Have a Balanced Perspective on the Past
One thing that can make it more difficult to let things go is if we turn the past into a fantasy. This can look like “forgetting” all of the challenging experiences you had in a relationship and telling yourself that your partner and every part of your relationship was perfect. This unrealistic view of things can amplify your feelings of loss in the situation. On the other end of the spectrum, some people will make up that the situation they are letting go of was absolutely horrible with no redeeming aspects. This can cause you to ignore the loss you are experiencing. In order to avoid either of these traps, I encourage you to take a balanced perspective on the thing you are saying goodbye to. Acknowledge the “good” and the “bad;” reflect on what you appreciated about the situation and identify what you would prefer not to experience again. Hold the positive and negative aspects of what you have experienced together.
Feel your Feelings
We often feel a complex mix of emotions when we say goodbye to things. Depending on what the situation was and what our experiences were with a person or place we are saying goodbye to we may experience sadness, anger, frustration, and relief among other emotions. There are no right or wrong ways to feel in the face of saying goodbye. I encourage you to allow yourself to feel your feelings all the way through without judgment and with a lot of self-compassion. Allowing yourself to acknowledge and feel your emotions enables you to process and then release them so they don’t become internalized and emerge at a later time. For more guidance on how to do this check out two of my previous blog posts: A Case for Black Self-Compassion and 4 Healthy Ways to Respond to Emotions.
Express Your Gratitude
Regardless of whether we are sad to say goodbye or can’t wait to do it, there is usually something that we gained from any given relationship or situation that we are moving on from. I encouraged you to reflect on the ways that you learned and grew from the thing you are saying goodbye to. Identifying how we have benefited from the things we are letting go helps us to get in touch with gratitude for the things and people we are leaving behind. We know from research that practicing gratitude contributes significantly to our experience of happiness. Identifying and expressing what we are grateful for may increase the sadness around saying goodbye and it will also increase our feelings of joy related to the experience overall.
Whether you are faced with saying goodbye to a loved one or letting go of your hopes about how something would turn out, I hope you will find my recommendations on healthy ways to say goodbye helpful.