May is graduation time. So for many of us, it is a time for goodbyes. It is also a good time to reflect on the importance and even the gift of goodbyes, for all of us.

We understandably dread goodbyes, especially with those we love most. Moments of parting can be among the most poignant of human experiences. And likewise, among the most important. We should thus do our best to get them right.

I can remember the countdown to leaving home for college the first time. The fact that I was the youngest in my family and had been alone with my parents for two years made it all the more difficult, for all of us. The cloud of dread hovers and intensifies as the moment approaches. Finally, it’s time. Emotion breaks through, first in one, then the other. The long embrace, sobbing.

But what if that moment were somehow excised? Somehow you are whisked away, so no one has to say goodbye. Sure, there may be immediate relief. But in the long run, an important opportunity has been missed.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to run from moments of farewell—either consciously or unconsciously. Often have I heard someone mumble, “I hate goodbyes.” But is it reasonable to transfer our hatred of the parting itself to the rituals of marking the parting? I would like to suggest that we seek these rituals rather than avoid them.

Goodbyes provide a unique opportunity to do three things: express gratitude, ask forgiveness, and offer encouragement.

A farewell is the natural context for expressing gratitude. Of course gratitude can break through in a relationship at any time; a gratuitous exclamation of ‘What would I do without you?’ is perhaps always in order. But normally it takes unique circumstances to elicit such an expression. Parting prompts us to look back and reflect upon the good things that, at least to some real extent, are about to be lost. We realize in a special way how much we appreciate certain things that our loved one does, or has done, for us. How fitting it is to mark this realization with appropriate words, gifts, or other signs of appreciation.

If nothing else we might simply say: “I want you to know that your presence in my life has meant more to me than I can say. Thank you.” Words such as these can both give a new vision of what has gone before, and fortify us for what is to come.

Asking forgiveness is not easy, and perhaps no context can really change that. And as with gratitude, asking forgiveness is appropriate or sometimes required at any number of times. But farewells are again a natural context. We are looking back and taking stock. We realize that we have failed—in particular obvious instances, or perhaps in more generic ways. Now is the time to express sorrow and ask forgiveness. Our request may elicit—though it need not—a reciprocal petition for forgiveness, which can occasion a reconciliation, even one we didn’t realize we needed!

In any case it would not be good to part from this person, to move on, without first seeking to right whatever needs righting.

The third point—offering encouragement—might be the least obvious. Here I include expressions of confidence, praise and well-wishing, as well as the offering of advice or even fraternal correction. We are in a unique position to speak-into the lives of our loved ones. Given our intimate knowledge and affection for our loved ones, our encouragement and our counsel to them are all the more meaningful. It is often upon a son’s leaving home, for instance, that a father can both foresee the son’s success, and offer direction that helps assure it.

As a professor in a college community of several hundred people, I have had ample opportunity for reflection upon saying goodbye. Every May the students with whom I have shared a life for four years effectively vanish into thin air. Sure, some of them stay in touch, and come back and visit. I am very grateful for this. But in a real way, that group of roughly one hundred people, some of whom I have really come to know and love—sharing trials, tears, and triumphs—leaves never to return.

So I am learning to say goodbye. And I must continue to do so.

To say goodbye is to mark appropriately that something is over. And it prepares us to enter into a time of separation, a separation either in figurative death—such as someone moving away, or literal death. That we hope and trust in a glorious ‘other side’ of death does not mean there is no death, while it does give us new perspective on the separation. But the proximate sting of death remains, and is marked, endured, and transcended, through good goodbyes.

We are grateful both for what has gone before, and for the fact that there is more to come, later, and we strive to be undaunted by the chasm that separates the two. We ask and offer forgiveness, confident in a mercy that encompasses all. And we offer encouragement and direction, to fortify for the separation—a separation we trust is not final.

Note: This is a re-working of a piece I published at Catholic Exchange in May 2014.

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