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  • Writer's pictureFiona Holiday

What makes a good goodbye?

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

When it comes to disconnecting from someone we are connected to, the idea of marking that in some way is important. After all, the relationship is important to us and, by extension, the other person is important.

What we gain from a relationship is the knowledge, and the felt sense, that we matter. When it comes to saying goodbye, whether for a short time or more permanently, we are also saying goodbye to that experience, in a way.

So how do we do it? There are a couple of interesting approaches revealed in the social conventions to saying goodbye. I’m struck by how often the goodbyes we say mirror the hellos – a hug, handshake, kiss on the cheek. The Italian ‘ciao’ and Hawaiian ‘aloha’ serve as both hello and goodbye. The Hebrew ‘shalom’ meaning peace is also used interchangeably as greeting and parting. Like aloha, it brings with it an intention for the experience of relationship. I’m thinking that these rituals serve to reinforce the connection, draw our attention to the togetherness of being together.

In English, the word ‘goodbye’, is a contraction of the parting wish ‘God be with you”. The ‘adieu’ in French and ‘adios’ in Spanish both mean ‘to God’. There is a desire to send the other person off with a blessing, or care for their wellbeing. We might as well be saying “I care about you when I am not with you.” This reminds me of the importance of the concept of being ‘held in mind’. We like the idea that someone holds a sense of us, it is reassuring and, for those who struggle to internalise this idea, we often use an object or token as a symbol of this. Transitional objects can be like parting gifts.

How about other expressions? German ‘auf Wiedersehen’ and French ‘au revoir’ are just a couple of examples of parting words which focus on the possibility of reconnection in the future. These emphasise the ongoing nature of the relationship, there will be another coming together. I am also interested in ‘sayonara’ which has the literal translation of ‘if it be thus’ which the Oxford English Dictionary says is used ‘to qualify the desire to meet again so as not to tempt fate’. There is something reassuring in the inherent predictability of saying ‘see you soon!’. How often do we say this even when we have no firm plans, but as an attempt to soften the blow of disconnection?

For children, however, this vagueness may not be enough. Sometimes we need more concrete evidence of when the reconnection will happen and repeated experiences of this being the case in order to trust in the process.

As a nursery teacher, I saw many goodbyes and many parents who found them a challenge. Being ready to say goodbye to someone we trust and care about in order to stay in a less familiar place with less familiar people is a big step. Sometimes, parents had been advised to sneak out while the child was busy playing. Imagine, you are having a great time, you glance round to share your joy, discovery, excitement with the person you trust the most and they have disappeared without you realising! You didn’t know that could happen. When were they coming back? Will they remember you?

Goodbyes may sometimes be painful and uncomfortable, but they allow the possibility of hello in the future. That’s why we have rituals, to help us through the process and to build predictability.

So what makes a good goodbye?

  • Preparation When is it going to happen? When you have hung up your coat? When we have read a story?

  • Ritual How do we say goodbye in this relationship? Do we have some phrases we always say? (see you later, alligator!) What do we do physically? Are there hugs, kisses, little dances? Make them yours, make them special and make time for them because they matter. And if you forget? We all forget, it’s about how we allow the feelings to be acknowledged and and make amends that really matters.

  • Holding in mind How does a child know that you will hold them in mind? Do they need something from you or from home to physically hold on to? A photograph, something that smells of you, a cuddly toy?

  • Predictability When will you see them again? What will they experience before that happens? Is it after a meal? After two bath times and bedtimes? How can you help them to track their time and feel that they are moving towards reunion? It helps us to get to the end of something when we know when that end is coming!

  • A good hello! Once you see someone again, say hello properly, really tune in to them. Re-connect – they need to know that you still know them and that they still matter.

These are important for the everyday goodbyes we experience. They help us to maintain our relationships. The goodbyes where there will be no hello in the future are often more difficult. I’ll write about those another time.

But, for now, farewell and au revoir. I both wish you well and hope to see you again.

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