How to Help Our Kids Say Healthy Goodbyes

My kids have to say a lot of goodbyes.

We live in Djibouti but my husband and I are both from Minnesota. Our family spends some summers in Minnesota and when we leave Africa, we have to say goodbye to friends and coaches and teachers. Then, come August, when we return to Africa, we have to say goodbye to grandparents and friends and cousins.

Other goodbyes are more permanent. Expatriate families come and go often here. Military and diplomatic families have two-year postings. Businesses move their employees on. Development workers finish projects and leave. Families leave for health reasons, for children’s education, because of insecurity, because they are finished with their work. Local families send children abroad for a French education in Europe or an English one in Canada or the United States.

One spring my daughter had to say goodbye to one of her best friends. They finished fourth grade, the friend was moving to Europe, my daughter was staying. I thought I would have to help with the goodbye – maybe give some ideas or provide some words for how to talk about what they were feeling.

And though we did talk about it, my daughter excelled in love her friend well and in saying goodbye wisely. She showed me how to do those things selflessly and creatively. 

Here’s what she did:

Got Personal. She wanted to give her friend something unique and precious, something that would remind her of their friendship, not a quick toy or bag of candy. She looked at the store and she also looked through my box of gift ideas. Then she saw two matching picture frames in a box in our storage area. I’d had them for years and never used them. Each was 8×10 and covered with sparkly stones. The outer edge was looping wire – perfect. That led into the next idea:

Created Memories. She scoured my computer for photos of the girls together. The next time her friend came over to play, they printed the photos and designed photo pages, slathering them with stickers and phrases cut out from magazines that made them giggle and reminded them of shared memories. Each girl decorated two photos. One to go in the frame and one extra. They signed the back of the frame with their names and hearts.

Kept Memories. She also made her own photo page. She wanted to remember her friend, too. Sometimes it is harder to be the one left behind, the hole seems so noticeable, while the friend who moves away is on to the next adventure. She made her own frame and photo page and propped it up in a prominent place on her bookshelf.

Took Time and Used Her Talent. Two days before the final departure, she and a third friend wrote an original song for the girl who was leaving. The two girls practiced it with me for several days, then performed it and recorded it and gave the girl a sheet of paper with the words written down.

My daughter didn’t cry while she practiced the song with me, but I did. I still do, sometimes, when we watch the video.

Goodbyes will always be hard, but they are also opportunities to help our children remember a good friend with delight and to help them celebrate. I believe this contributes to resiliency and a willingness to engage in the next friendship that comes along, without dreading the sadness of the inevitable goodbyes.

How do you help your kids say goodbye well?

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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