Saying “hello” is pretty easy. We are taught early on to do it. We learn to say “hello” to new people in our lives: new teachers, new fellow students, new friends, new sales people, new dating partners, and new employers – to mention just a few. This upbringing adds to our pleasure and excitement – and that makes it relatively easy.
For the first 35 years of my life I was very focused on “hellos” and really gave little or no thought to “goodbyes”. Then I learned the importance of “goodbyes”.
My father died when I was 28, and I didn’t say “goodbye” to him, even though I had the opportunity. I just didn’t know yet that it was important. Then, 7 years later, I was participating in a 3-week intensive therapy workshop. Two weeks into the group, the therapists running the group began having the 10 participants begin saying “goodbye” to one another, using the format shown below as a protocol.
In the middle of the exercise I suddenly burst into tears and started sobbing my lungs out. I was surprised, to say the least, until I realized that I wasn’t crying about separation from the other members of the group – but rather, about losing my father. I continued to cry for 3 days, and then suddenly found myself enraged at my father for abandoning me. Such feelings are obviously irrational – as are all feelings, if the truth be known. So I raged for the next 3 days, finally letting go of a host of feelings that I’d suppressed since his death.
When someone important to you is leaving (or has left) permanently, it is vital that one say “goodbye” in a deeply meaningful way. If the person is still alive, one can say one’s parting words directly to them; but if they are unconscious or already departed, one can speak to them as if they could hear you.
The important point here isn’t that the person hears you. What is important is that you hear you saying what you need to say – even if the person is long gone and unavailable.
Later in the year I had the experience described above, I met Leah, my wife-to-be. She and I were together for 32 wonderful years before she began showing marked signs of having Alzheimer’s.
Recognizing what lay ahead, and knowing that 65% of Alzheimer’s care-givers die before the patient, I joined a spousal Alzheimer’s care-givers support group that was instrumental in assisting me to survive the ordeal.
Four years later, just a year before my Leah died, one of the members of my group asked me how I managed to keep my spirits up so well – so I explained. The group responded so positively that one of them asked me to write what he had just heard me say. So this is what I wrote:
SHARED WITH MY GROUP
When I found out that my wife has Alzheimer’s I did a bit of research to find out what that meant. The first and most important thing I found out was that, unlike heart disease, stroke, and cancer, no one survives Alzheimer’s – ever. This fact made me very unhappy, of course; but it also grounded me in realistic expectations. Since then I’ve been watching my wife of thirty-six years die – an “inch” at a time.
She lost the ability to drive; then she lost the ability to work as a clinical social worker. She attended and enjoyed her daycare group until she became so severely anxious that she could no longer attend. She lost her ability to paint, a long-time passion of hers. She lost the ability to read, another major source of pleasure for most of her life. She can no longer feed herself, so now she depends on others to feed her.
I know that she will eventually lose the ability to eat, and finally she will lose the ability to breathe – and she will die.
Knowing these facts isn’t easy for me. It is a source of the utmost anguish. I sometimes cry about it. But somehow, accepting this painful reality is a source of strength to me. By accepting the reality I stay grounded. I keep my expectations aligned with reality. I am not caught up in denial, futile negotiation, or anger.
Instead I let myself experience my grief; and this allows me to remember with bittersweet pleasure all the good times we had together. I wouldn’t trade the past 36 years for anything, no matter what the emotional cost. I’ve known from the beginning that one of us would eventually face such a loss – and I have always accepted it as the price of a great love.
It was the earlier experience of practicing the “goodbye” protocol that gave me the courage to accept the unfolding reality of my wife’s demise, without succumbing to the despair that so often kills Alzheimer’s care-givers.
The “Goodbye” Protocol
Below are the beginnings of a number of sentences that you are to repeat, completing each over and over with new endings, until you can find no more relevant completions. Then move on to the next, repeat, and continue.
I wouldn’t want you to die without knowing how much I appreciate the way you…
I still resent the way you…
I’m going to miss (or I do miss) your…
I’m going to miss seeing you…
I’m going to miss hearing you…
I always wanted to tell you how much I…
I always thought we’d have a chance to…
I’m not going to miss your…
I won’t miss your…
I wish you had never…
I wish I had never…
I regret we never …
I’m sorry I never…
I hope you knew I…
I’m glad to realize you…
Add any other items you would want the person to know about your feelings toward them and about how their departure affects your life.