Saying Goodbye: Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

by Lisa McKay on April 3, 2013

Change is in the air. After three years here in Luang Prabang, we’re leaving. My husband, Mike, is taking up a new job in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), so we’re packing up our life here and moving. We’re also having another baby in just over four months.

Because of the lack of quality medical care in Laos, it would be less than wise for me to give birth in this country. Because I have a chronic health condition called lymphedema that makes enduring hot weather heat difficult and damaging, it would also be less than wise to stay here, heavily pregnant, through the worst of the hot season and then make a late-date dash to Thailand to deliver. So the plan for months had been for me to leave Laos with our toddler in mid-May when I hit the third trimester, and go home to live with my parents for five months around the delivery of baby number two.

Given that I am now 37, I am sure that my poor parents thought they were at least a dozen years past any chance that I would turn up pregnant and alone on their doorstep needing sanctuary, much less do this twice within three years. Just goes to show you never know in life. It also goes to show that when you raise third culture kids who choose to continue on as global nomads, you run a serious risk of being permanently pegged as their home base. Parents, take heed.

So Mike and I had it all planned, you see. But in the past two weeks all our carefully stitched-together plans have come unraveled. Mike has re-herniated a disc in his back that was operated on only six months ago. An MRI indicates that the injury requires another surgery, after which he won’t be able to lift anything heavier than ten pounds (including our toddler) for at least ten weeks.

I won’t bore you by relaying all the reasons we settled on our new plan of action, I’ll just jump straight to the details. We’ve scheduled Mike’s surgery for April 12th, and Dominic and I will leave for Australia on about the 18th, right after Mike comes out of hospital.

This new plan moves my planned departure from Luang Prabang up by a month, to just one week from today. It also means that Mike and I will be apart for a full 14 weeks before he arrives in Australia just before (hopefully) the birth of our second child. Mike will have to oversee the pack up of our house, move to a new city, and start a new job by himself while he’s still recovering from surgery. In short, it all sort of sucks.

In the wake of this latest medical drama, I haven’t thought a great deal about leaving here as a move. The fact that I won’t be coming back to this beautiful little town that’s been home for three years hasn’t really sunk in.

They say that practice makes perfect, but when it comes to leaving places and people I think it might be the opposite – on one level, anyway.

You do get better at coping with the logistical demands with practice. I can now tackle a multi-stage pack up of our lives, logically parse a dozen complicated flight itineraries, and shift from place to place without breaking too much of a sweat. Over time, however, the emotional demands of serial itinerancy are becoming more difficult for me to acknowledge and address, not less.

Given the sudden rush and how the pressure has accelerated all the deadlines on an already daunting to-do list, it’s perhaps understandable that this departure still feels unreal to me. I’m not exactly flush with time to sit around and think about things I’ve loved here, things I’ll miss, and all the joys and grief that this town has born witness to. There won’t be a farewell party, or many leisurely dinners with friends that would provide opportunities to tell them how we love and appreciate them, and thank them for how they’ve enriched our lives. I’m thinking more about how to survive this change than how it feels or what it means.

To be honest, though, I don’t know how much deep processing of this departure I’d be doing even if our plans hadn’t been up-ended. So far I’ve moved countries about a dozen times and houses at least twenty. I’m continually getting better at the logistics of relocation, but I’m starting to worry that I’m getting worse at saying and feeling meaningful goodbyes. The last time I deeply grieved a move I was sixteen. Now I tend to disconnect easily, perhaps too easily. And I wonder if this is linked in important ways to another trend I’ve noticed – my growing tendency to settle somewhere new lightly, perhaps too lightly.

Right now, I don’t know. All I know right now is that a week from now we’ll be on a plane, heading for a hospital in Bangkok that I’m way too familiar with. A week after that I’ll be preparing to board another plane. Then the kaleidoscope of life will be given another sudden twist and I’ll be “home” in Australia with winter coming on, minus one husband and plus two parents. I’ll be looking for a new normal for our toddler and for me for the following six months.

And then, we’ll be leaving.

And arriving.


What have your experiences been with moving?
How do you mark departures and say goodbye?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Website:      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • I find that the goodbyes happen whether you plan them or not. They may not be perfect, but somehow you get what you need. XO

    • Does ice cream and massage and spa time count in the needs category? :). OK. Maybe that would be the wants.

  • i used to feel ambivalent about goodbyes (and hellos) and essentially danced a quickstep to avoid them. i always chalked it up to the fact that i was an introvert and felt i related as well to people via the post as i did in person and actually felt more comfortable that way. then i had kids… and i couldn’t make that same decision for them or for the people who loved them.

    i’ve had to learn to “do goodbyes” for the sake of my children and they’ve taught me a few things (at least as far as what my family needs): 1) in general, the harder the goodbye, the more precious the relationship and the more wonderful the next hello, and the more important the relationship; 2) the fact that so many sad goodbyes are a part of our lives also means we have the delight of so many wonderful hellos; 3) it is harder to be the one standing watching another leave you than to be the one doing the leaving, and 4) that old cliche (better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all) is true.

    the long and short of it is – i’ve learned not to wear mascara to the airport… and that the tears and emotions and all that “yuck” that goes along with goodbyes are important to my kids. i thought they might get all maudlin about it – you know, teenage girls and stuff – but the emotion does seem to match with the depth of feeling, at least so far. so, we always try set aside time to say those goodbyes…

    • Makes sense that this will be another issue that having children will now force me to confront more deeply. We packed up the curious on the landing bench in our house four days ago. And EVERY time I go downstairs now I have to stop and explain to my toddler that, yes, they’re gone. They’re in boxes. They’ll come back. I can see this in my future too.

  • I know that I turn off my emotions during the goodbye and choose to grieve it in advance – by the time the goodbye arrives I am done feeling sad about it. This means that my mother is sobbing and I am stoic — I prefer to do goodbye grief in advance, when it is time to go I just want to buck-up and go.

    • Yeah. I’m the stoic one at airports too. Mind you, most of my family is pretty stoic at airports. I’m not the only one who’s had a lot of practice…

    • Megan

      I can totally relate. It’s like emotionally you are drained, by the time you get to the airport.

  • Megan Stewart

    Thank you for your post. It made me really reflect on the transition of leaving my overseas placement I am going through right now.

    I have known now for 2 months that I would be moving back to the USA at the end of the school year, and since then have been struggling with the balance of planning for the future, and living
    for today. It hit me this weekend, while packing my 2nd bag to send
    back early with a fellow missionary, I had to make the choice of giving up some
    items that I was planning on taking back with me. I had to re-sort all of the teaching
    resources I was wishing to take back with me, and give some up because of the
    amount of weight they took up. In doing this, reality hit. Teaching kids is
    what I have known for the past 6 years, the past two years at a missionary
    school in Hungary. Now I am hanging up my teaching shoes to pursue working with
    Campus Ministry, a totally different age group, AND returning to live in the
    United States. This transition is so different than the 4 other ones I have
    been through in the past 6 years.

    I think this transition I really have to learn how to give up ‘my’ plans. I didn’t realize this until writing
    this reply, but I see God working on my in learning how to give up things. At first I did a really good job of having an open hand, but I think as it gets closer to my leaving date I am wanting to control the chaos of transition with
    attempting to cling to areas that I think I have control of my life. Stepping back though, I need to seek God and
    not control in the midst of the chaos. We all know that in seeking God whole hearted means that I first must give up my plans. May we both learn to confess of my desire to control this chaos on our own and seek peace through times with Jesus.A hard, but necessary thing to pursue in the midst of transition, juggling ‘a dozen’ different tasks that have to get done before you leave. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, Megan. Control is such a big/tricky thing, isn’t it? Holding on too tight and not trying hard enough both problematic. Hope that this next change brings so many surprising blessings and fresh learnings!!

  • Oh dear friend. This is hard, hard, hard. Praying. Praying.

  • As another global nomad I relate strongly to your comment about disconnecting easily and settling lightly. I haven’t put down roots… ever. I live in Australia now and I’m still finding it hard to stay in one place, still house-hunting on the internet and wondering where we’ll go next and still making only superficial relationships because that’s what I’ve always done.
    Not sure how to deal with that.
    For me it has become easier to pack up and leave for another adventure than to stay and live the ‘ordinary’ life.

    • Yes, this is familiar to me. I’d love to live in Australia for a stint but part of me wonders whether I’d just approach Australia the way I’ve found myself approaching our most recent countries … lightly. Writing “Love” helped me surface some of these issues, but recognizing them is easier than changing them.

  • I relate to this post SO much! I still hate goodbyes, but in a way, I’m also scared of hellos because I hate goodbyes so much. In realized from living overseas its not just myself that’s constantly moving, but so are the people around me. I can go back to my parents house, and most of my friends there are still around. I go back to a place overseas, and in six months, life has changed dramatically.

    • Yeah, almost every expat that lived here when we moved here has left now. It’s transient living both ways!!

  • I once heard a friend say when I asked her, “How long do you play on living here?” :

    “We’ll be here for a long time. Maybe forever. At least that’s how I have to look at it, or I’ll never make good community.”

    And I thought there was such good (HARD!) wisdom in that, especially for we transients. It’s sooo hard to invest when you have your sights on the next move.

    Lisa, prayers for you and yours as you head into (another!!) season of transition. Thanks for giving us your story– looks like many of us can sooooo relate!

    love from here,

  • As I read your stories, I’m realizing that in our 10+ years, we really haven’t had many goodbyes. However, the last one was terribly traumatic. It involved deportation, if that helps to understand what I’m saying. I did mentally get myself to the point of being glad that I had loved so well, and deciding to love anyway in our next (current) location. However, I’m afraid that I haven’t done well with that. Now that we’re facing another move, I really see that I have not put down roots here. How do I do that in our next location? Apparently just resolving to love and not hold back isn’t enough….

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