Embracing the Good in ‘Goodbye’
by Heidi Carlson
The first goodbye I remember is my family standing on the church stage, our elders praying with their hands on us. Tears. Cake and a reception in the fellowship hall. Friends and family from across the country. Lots of photos.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we wouldn’t return to the United States for five years after that goodbye. I was 5 years old.
For many, summer is a time of transition, a time that most likely includes a goodbye or two. A move to college or a move to an assisted-living residence. A move across the globe or a move to a town 20 miles away.
Holding back tears, most people would agree with my 8-year-old daughter (who has moved four times and lived in three countries): “I don’t like goodbyes. They are one of the worst things I don’t like.”
Goodbyes aren’t easy, but they’re a valuable practice in our homes and churches. Instead of hiding behind our discomfort—“I’m not good at goodbyes!”—we can develop practices that lead to healthy, helpful goodbyes. Here are five suggestions.
1. Acknowledge the Pain
For the person leaving, saying goodbye raises all kinds of painful uncertainties: Will I ever have this again? This fellowship? These friendships? These opportunities? This church? This community?
Those are the questions I had when I graduated from high school in Africa. As a third-culture kid, I knew I was leaving not only my school but also a culture I might never return to.
Whatever the circumstances of the parting, grief is a close companion of goodbye. God created us for community, and when physical separation breaks our community, we grieve. We long for togetherness. As I tell my children and remind myself, it’s okay to cry at goodbyes. As believers, we stand in a long line of the faithful who have grieved at a departure. However, we grieve with the hope and knowledge that eternal togetherness is certain.
When Paul left the Ephesian elders in Miletus they knew they wouldn’t see each other again on this earth. They accompanied him to the ship, “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:38). These Christians didn’t conceal their tears or deny their grief. Neither should we.
2. Be Intentional
Maybe you’re the one staying put and saying goodbye to a friend moving away. Or perhaps you’re the one planning the relocation. In either case, make the goodbye intentional. You don’t have to throw a fancy party among the boxes, but making space in the schedule to say a purposeful goodbye honors relationships. Often we focus on the person departing, but those left behind, particularly family members, can also feel the deep pain of separation.
In the military we have a tradition called the “Hail and Farewell.” We welcome newcomers to the team and honor those who are departing. At a farewell, colleagues and friends get the opportunity to say a word of encouragement and give parting gifts. “Hail and Farewells” are an integral part of the military community, encouraging healthy goodbyes.
Though formal goodbye parties can be important, individual parting words are essential, too. On a recent move from Romania, we were about to drive our loaded car away on an Eastern European road trip that would ultimately end at an airport in Germany and a flight back to the States. We had buckled the kids. We opened our gate.
But I felt to the urge to say goodbye to the neighbors one more time. I wanted to thank them for their friendship and kindness. Sure enough, the few extra minutes were worth it.
3. Acknowledge Blessings
At the point of saying goodbye, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the blessings of the past.
Our family will soon move to house in a different neighborhood. Though the relocation is barely a mile away, we feel the impending change. Before the goodbye, we’ll walk through each room of our home with our kids and share memories of living here. We’ll write down their favorite memories—where we put the Christmas tree; the bedroom where our daughter lost her first tooth; the dining room where we hosted family, friends, refugees, and neighbors; the kitchen where we made pizza every Friday; the corner where I sat to drink in the view. We write them down as Ebenezers to God’s goodness and faithfulness.
A friend of mine, a military spouse, says her family sets aside the beginning of each relocation road trip to share the “bests” of living in the place they’re leaving. This practice teaches children to reflect on God’s kindness in difficult circumstances. And it trains our hearts to be thankful for his faithfulness in our lives.
4. Pray at Departure
The best goodbyes are marked by prayer. We’ve stood in a circle at the airport to pray and bid farewell to dear friends. As a family, in the loaded minivan with the engine running, we’ve prayed before beginning yet another cross-country move. Such times of prayer help us focus our teary eyes on Christ, who goes before us.
Two thousand years ago on the coast of Syria, a band of disciples honored the goodbye by praying (Acts 21:5–6). After seven days of sweet fellowship, Paul had to say goodbye yet again as he continued his third missionary journey. He didn’t give a quick wave, quipping “see you in heaven if not before” as he boarded the ship. No. Fathers, mothers, and children alike accompanied him to the outskirts of the city. Kneeling on the beach, they prayed and said their goodbyes.
5. Remember You Are Sent
Some of my most meaningful goodbyes have come in the form of commissions, like that church service from my childhood.
Our missionary commissioning service recognized God’s call on our lives and sent us to do that work. Twenty years later, I was commissioned in the United States Air Force. I took an oath, and the military confirmed my competence and sent me to do my duty. When I graduated from college, my Bible study group gave departing seniors a spiritual commissioning. We were reminded that wherever we went, we were sent ones.
When the time comes to say goodbye, we can be assured that God goes before us. He is with us in the journey, and he is preparing us for the next destination.