Goodbye: Making a Hard Word Easier


goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.

Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.

But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy youGod b’w’yGodbwyeGod buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”

So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?

Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. It means we’re leaving each other’s day-to-day lives. It means our informal and unplanned conversations will be replaced by emails, scheduled phone calls, and Skype chats. It means that we’ll miss being present for milestones and special moments. It means we’ll sometimes slip out of each others minds, no matter how hard we try. It means that, to a certain extent, we’ll be replaced by others. It means our paths may never cross again. It means . . . well, you know what it means.

It’s not really that we don’t want to say, “Goodbye.” It’s that we don’t want to have the need to say, “Goodbye.” And because of that, we get good at doing it badly.We pull away prematurely and become distant so it won’t be so hard at the end. We put it off as if it will just go away. We avoid hellos, heartfelt hellos, because we fear starting new relationships that won’t last.

Following are a few ideas for helping us do our goodbyes better. I considered numbering them, but I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some kind of definitive list. (I also thought about titling my post “8 Mind-Blowing Ways to Say Goodbye that Have the Internet Buzzing—#4 Will Leave You Speechless,” but I couldn’t write something to match it.) Instead, I’ll just offer the following as suggestions and ideas to build upon. Here we go:

If you’re the one leaving, give yourself the time you need. It takes a while to say goodbye to the four “P”s (as named by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in Third Culture Kids): people, places, pets, and possessions. To that list I would add experiences, even though it doesn’t start with a P (e.g., I’m riding the train for the last time.) And another goodbye that will continue long after you’re gone is saying farewell to lost opportunities, dreams, and parts of your identity.

Because it takes time, don’t assume you’ll have unlimited opportunities. “We don’t need to say goodbye just yet. I’m sure I’ll see you again.” That means you’ll be cramming way too many meetings into your last week. Now that I’m back in the States, I’ve had opportunities to feel the guilt from the other side: “When are you leaving? In two weeks? Wow! I feel horrible. When can we get together for coffee?” Plan ahead and don’t put off your farewells, even though you may dread them. Within a month or so of a departure (yours or theirs), tell people goodbye “in case I don’t see you again” (gulp).

And then there is the furlough, that glorious and horrible time where the arrival and departure rub shoulders throughout the stay. Three months can seem so long to those who aren’t the ones traveling. But for those doing the staying, the furlough is part of a long-term same, while for those coming and going, it’s a short-term different.

Avoid making promises you can’t keep (I’ll call everyday!). It hurts when promises aren’t kept, even when they’re unrealistic and made in the emotions of the moment. Even worse are promises that we can keep but that we don’t (I’ll be sure to email once a month.)

A friend of mine in campus ministry, where the population is always in transition, says that the hardest part of his work comes during the final weeks of the school year. That’s when he remembers all the opportunities he didn’t take advantage of. It’s important to tie up as many loose ends as possible, but recognize that you won’t be able to accomplish all your long-term goals in just a couple weeks.

Acknowledge that goodbyes can be confusing and often come with grief and guilt. Talk about it. Explain how you feel—wanting something and hating it at the same time. If you’re the one staying, realize that you may never understand all the reasons for a departure. If you’re the one leaving, realize that you may not understand all the reasons yourself.

When it comes to moving abroad, leaving loved ones behind, emotions can be complex and hard to navigate, on both sides. In their book Parents of Missionaries, Cheryl Savage and Diane Stortz quote Carol, a mother of a missionary, who says, “Hello, good-bye. Hello, good-bye. Sometimes I think that describes my life.” The authors suggest that a group gathering can help with the goodbye process. This can take the places of so many individual farewells and can also serve as a time to celebrate events that will be missed in the future (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, etc.).

Those leaving should be able to decide the where and the when for goodbyes. Maybe they want a big get-together. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they want their final goodbyes outside the gate at the airport. Maybe at the house before the airport ride is better. Preferences and feelings are tricky things. Ask. Talk it over. Be honest. Show grace.

Speaking of airports, a friend in member care talks about “airport ambushes.” That’s when revelations are made during that ride to the flight or right before boarding. They often start with “There’s something I need to tell you. . . .” They can happen following years on the field or after a three-day visit. They can come from the leavers or the stayers. Take care of important news before the goodbye, while there is still time for processing and followup in person—not during the final hug.

Yes, saying goodbye is hard, but doing it the right way can make it easier and is well worth the effort. It’s an opportunity to encourage and be encouraged, to work toward closure, to remember, to mourn together, to celebrate, to begin something new—and to commit others to God’s care. It’s a blessing to be able to say goodbye, even when it’s a mixed blessing. And as those who’ve experienced it can attest, it’s still more difficult to have to say, “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

(David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009; Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

[photo: “Goodbye Summer 2011,” by deargdoom57, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at

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