Remember a place where you went all alone. You discovered this terrain for the first time in solitude. You are an inquisitive explorer on the prowl, ready to pounce and discover this uncharted land. Think back. Was the ground you stood on hard and rough or smoother? Was it the gritty sand of a beach beneath your feet or the lustrous emerald grass of a valley? Reminisce on the people you were with, the experiences you shared, the gregarious laughs, the heart-wrenching sobs, and the in-between emotions, all of them important pieces of the memory.
Now think about leaving. The sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know that a hug is the last one, when the words said are going to be the final words until you see the person next. People live bustling busy bee lives which remain so even during goodbyes. Everyone worries all the time. Asking did you pack everything you needed, the passport, the toiletries, the god-knows-what-else you may need on a trip. Goodbyes may be bombarded by these little worries that then do not leave time for what really matters: making the goodbye meaningful, saying those all-important words you have been mulling over and needing to say for a while. Goodbyes can be daunting because with them comes pressure – for them to be memorable – and the expectation of pain. Goodbyes are a nasty business.
Goodbyes are a universal phenomenon. Not everyone understands everything about other people’s culture, but when it comes to goodbyes we have all had a fair share. We even know the terms – farewell, au revoir, ciao, arriverdverci, aloha – just to name a few. The universality of the feeling makes it poignant. A goodbye elicits an emotional reaction. Some people may be guarded and act cold but when it comes down to the crux of the moment – when it’s time to part with a person they love dearly – then even the most detached person may unleash the waterworks.
Goodbyes can creep up on you when you least expect it.
My goodbye at the end of secondary school left me utterly speechless because after the ceremonial rambling of our Head of Year and other staff members wishing all 250 of my fellow peers a hopeful future, they suddenly began hugging and promising to stay in touch. Apparently this separation was more permanent than I anticipated – you always think you will stay in touch until life gets in the way. The spontaneity of the moment unravelled my indifferent heart and I found my 16-year-old self sobbing along with everyone else in the middle of the assembly hall. I never expected to feel a finality to a period in my life, but that day the fact that all my friends were moving on and so was I hit home.
My most recent goodbye was yesterday. I see my extended family once a year and two weeks to visit two grandmothers in different parts of the country are never enough. This time together is precious because it is just long enough to rekindle the bond that makes families close. Hanging out with my parents and extended family brought us closer together in a way I did not expect; spending time with people reminds you how understanding and supportive family can be. The frequency of visits or quantity of time spent together does not define the quality of the relationship. If it works, it works. When the goodbye comes it’s a slithering snake – a rattlesnake – that startles you with the rattle of its tail. It sneaks up on you unexpectedly and then stings.
The hardest of all is the anguish of the permanent kind of goodbye.
The sting of a temporary goodbye is soothed by the knowledge of repetition. You know you will get to see the beloved person’s face again and to hear their voice. But when someone you love dies, the pain has no output – no way to be soothed. There is no opportunity to recover from the temporary sting because the permanence haunts you – there is no way to reconcile your relationship with the individual because, quite bluntly, they will never come back. The brutality is a reality check, a pain-inflicting inescapable fact. I’ve known a permanent goodbye, and if you have too then you know that you want to avoid it, but you also know that sometimes it cannot be.
In order to minimise regrets every goodbye should be good enough to be the last one. Make goodbyes count.