Does a "Proper Goodbye" Exist?
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Reflections on a Missing Cat and Other Losses
A recent event opened up the file of multiple losses I’ve experienced in my life. It raised the question: How often do we get to say a proper goodbye?
I have no idea if this is true. My immediate answer is no doubt based on personal history. Others might say something more optimistic.
Personal history influences my tendency to imagine worst case scenarios. My imagination went haywire when I received a text from my neighbor at 9:45pm on a Sunday evening asking, “Have you seen Marbles today?”
Our neighbors’ beloved fluffball had been gone for more than twenty-four hours. The battery on her GPS tracker (on her collar) was dead. My heart lurched. I feared the GPS tracker wasn’t the only thing that was dead.
I’ll spare you the suspense: Marbles’ disappearance lasted nine excruciating days. During that span of time, I was grief-stricken even though this wasn’t my cat that was missing. We have been smitten ever since we met Marbles.
As the search intensified, I hated not knowing what happened to her. This is nothing compared to what loved ones go through when a family member is kidnapped, or goes missing in action during wartime.
But the questions are the same: What happened? Dead, injured or alive? Should you act as if it’s time to say goodbye? Or never give up hope?
Marbles’ disappearance reminded me of what happened to Blackie when I was a teenager.
In high school, I had a gorgeous all-black cat named Blackie. One day, he disappeared, just like Marbles. But Blackie never came back home and we never found out what happened to him.
The hospice movement has provided excellent counsel on what to say to someone whom we know is dying:
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
Goodbye (or “until we meet again”).
But how do you say a proper goodbye when you have no clue that this is your last time together, be it in person or on the phone?
Do we need to live and act as if this is “the last time” each time we are in contact? What would we bring to that interaction if we kept this in mind? Appreciation? Overt expressions of fondness? Gratitude? Would we let our snippety differences recede? Imagine saying something like “I am upset with you AND I love you.”
If Marbles had perished rather than just taking a nine-day “vacation,” I would have been devastated. However, I would have taken comfort in knowing Marbles was well aware of my adoration before she went missing. Likewise with Blackie, in high school.
Do we show our fondness or devotion as freely with the humans in our life? Hope so. This is the only part we can control.
If we work on the parts that we can control . . . by being more forthright about our appreciation and fondness, and less stuck in our grievances, perhaps joy will arise amidst the grief a bit faster.
The part we can’t control is the not-knowing, or any contextual factors (fate, accidents, etc.) that contributed to a less-than-ideal goodbye. We are called to “agree with reality” even if it’s a reality we don’t like, or that robbed us of that elusive proper goodbye.
Can we alter how we see a bummer of an ending due to circumstances beyond our control?
This may be asking too much. It can take years.
I wish I could have been with each of my family members when they were dying. Circumstances beyond my control prevented that. It has taken years to find silver linings in how each of them died.
The work of grieving isn’t just to mourn the loss, but to find some kind of blessing, or some kind of agreement with reality, in the less-than-ideal parting. This may not be “the proper goodbye” but perhaps a more nuanced one will have to suffice.
May the multiple Marbles in your life, be they humans or of the furry variety, know how much they are loved today.
Comments on this blog post are welcome — see the bottom of this page.
Check out author James Hanna’s recent review of my memoir, Assembling a Life: Claiming the Artist in My Father (and Myself) by clicking here.
To purchase the premium softcover version of Assembling a Life, or to learn more about the book, visit this page.
For an Apple Books e-book version of Assembling a Life, click the Apple Books button.
Prompts For Joy
Click here to witness special bonds between people and the animals who love them.
(Thank you, Patricia DeMore. Your timing was amazing!)
Click here for a beautiful tale of parting gifts. The one and only Ruby Dee narrates.
Welcome home, Marbles. Photo taken inside the car by Bill Scala.