When We Have to Say Goodbye

Sooner or later, as caregivers, we have to say goodbye. Goodbye to a beloved family member, a longtime client, a patient who has moved from home to assisted living to hospital to nursing home to hospice… And then comes the sad phone call first thing in the morning, or the last visit that lasts through the night until the final breath is taken.

Surely it’s too early in our conversation together in this blog, Joyous Paradox, to speak of endings. And yet endings are where this blog began for me, exactly a year ago tomorrow, January 7, 2011.

It was a Friday morning. My husband Steve and I were making breakfast when the phone rang. I heard him laugh a little in the hall as he answered his cell phone. “Oh, good,” I thought, “it’s his sister Pat but their mother hasn’t died yet.”

But then, as he sat down at the kitchen table, I could tell from the softening of his shoulders that she had passed away. Gladys, at 96, was here in life no longer.    Much like those generations of kindergartners and first-graders whom she taught in Illinois, she had graduated and gone on to the next stage, though we here may have no way of following her to an earthly reunion.

I put my arms around Steve’s shoulders and kissed him on the top of his head. Steve and Pat made plans: airline tickets, funeral home, obituary.  I went to my therapy session and told my counselor I was ready to work on my compulsive overeating. Steve called his daughter Liz in Salt Lake City. I emailed my son Edward in Somerville, Massachusetts. We asked our friend Mo to feed the cat.

Now it is a year later, and I’m still grateful to Gladys. I’m not sure how I knew that she was leaving me her place in the world, but somehow I believed it then and still do. Our parents leave us and we leave off hosting the family celebrations, becoming instead the guests of our adult children, as Steve and Pat and I did, last month, with Liz and Jon in Salt Lake.

Goodbyes are losses and gains, ruins and foundations. When you say goodbye you leave something behind and you take something with you: sorrow, wisdom, and power.

Thank you for listening.