As I shared last week, in January I said “goodbye” to my father, as he passed “from the land of the dying to the land of the living.” Since then I’ve reflected on four principles that can help us say “goodbye” well. I hope you find these principles helpful as you join me in transitioning from the season of saying “hello” to the season of saying “goodbye.”
Saying Goodbye Well Begins Long Before We Do So
The first principle I’ve identified is that we must begin preparing to say “goodbye” when we first say “hello.” This preparation takes many forms. It includes having no regrets by keeping “short accounts” with others. When we wrong someone, it means being quick to go to him or her with an apology. In the words of Paul in Romans 12:18: “Don’t quarrel with anyone. Be at peace with everyone, just as much as possible.”
If we have gotten “sideways” with someone, getting right with him or her is of upmost importance. In fact, it appears reconciliation is the greatest act of worship:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
The same principle applies when someone wrongs us. In this case we are also to take the initiative to put things right, being quick to forgive: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32, cf. Colossians 3:13: “bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”)
In practical terms this means not holding grudges or allowing cracks to form in the relationship. My father and I had an open and honest relationship with no unresolved issues. Therefore, when the time to say goodbye came, we were ready to do so. We didn’t need to have hard conversations in order to “patch things up” or “bury the hatchet” (or what’s worse, avoid these conversations altogether, not clear things up, and be left with many regrets).
Related to this concerning parents in particular is the biblical mandate to honor one’s mother and father (Exodus 20:12). My father was an easy man to honor. He was easy to go to for advice, to praise, and to care for. I know this is not the case for many. Yet the principle of honoring our parents applies to all, and is the first command in Scripture which comes with a promise: “so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Honoring our father and mother helps us say goodbye well when the time comes.
More broadly, the biblical principle of treating all with grace and honor prepares us to say goodbye well to others in our lives. “For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love.” (Galatians 5:13) We are to “not rebuke an older man harshly…treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” (I Timothy 5:1) Following these commands not only bodes well for us in our day-to-day experience, but allows us to say goodbye well when the time comes.
Saying Goodbye Well Requires a Healthy Theology of Grief
Secondly, we prepare to say goodbye well by developing a healthy theology of grief. Within the Christian community our theology is often, “You should always be joyful, grief is the opposite of joy, so you should not grieve.”
Jesus himself corrected this theology by modeling that grief is not to be avoided. When his good friend Lazarus died, he wept (John 11:35). If anyone had a reason not to grieve, it was Jesus. He was already planning on resurrecting Lazarus. All would be made right shortly, so why grieve? But Jesus still wept. He shows it is natural, as well as right, to grieve. Loss is loss, no matter how short or how natural. And loss produces grief. In fact, if we don’t really grieve, we are probably not being honest about our loss.
One of the best books I’ve read on grief is by the eminent Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (emeritus professor at Yale). His son died in a mountain climbing accident at age 25, leading Dr. Wolterstorff to write Lament for a Son. It contains his very personal and insightful observations on the necessity, process, and results of grieving. If you are grieving, or preparing to grieve (which we all are, as death is inevitable), I highly recommend his book.
These two principles are absolutely essential to saying goodbye well. There are two more equally important principles that I’ll say a bit about in the next few weeks. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son.