Learning how to leave: The grace of goodbye
Goodbyes are rarely easy. As a child, I had difficulty in leaving places and people I liked. As an adult, I know the familiar feeling of gratitude swelling in my heart and tears welling up behind my eyes when it comes time to part ways with those I love or to end an experience that has been enriching.
For the last two months, I've been saying goodbye to the community to whom I've ministered for the last three years. This was my first ministry experience after initial profession, and as I prepared to go, I found myself sad to leave the people and place I had grown to love. They played a significant role in my initial formation as a Sister of St. Joseph. That being said, I also felt a readiness for the next step on my journey, even though that meant having to say goodbye.
I used to hate goodbyes, but I've come to appreciate the deep value they hold. Taking leave is a process that goes far beyond the act of simply saying goodbye; it's bound up with the relationships we've built and lessons we've learned.
An ending, no matter how ready (or not) we are for it, provides a moment of pause. The end, just as the beginning, facilitates a time out of the ordinary; it is a time that offers perspective and grants an occasion for clarification of our own story and the place of a new experience in it. Like any good story, it has its ups and downs. Yet a closer reading offers insight into the nature of saying farewell.
As school lets out for summer and the academic and fiscal years come to a close, it's helpful to pause and consider the lessons to be found in leaving. I offer some of the insights I've learned about how to make the transition a little smoother.
Take your time and honor your feelings, whatever they may be.
Saying goodbye takes time and energy. Often it isn't until you are finished in a place that the full effects of your time there — and your departure — become apparent. Endings can move quickly, but it is important to build in time to reflect on the process of saying goodbye. Many months later, the feelings around leaving may continue to catch up with you. There's a grace in being open to these emotions. Whether you feel gratitude, loss or something else entirely, learning to honor your feelings and not just brush them aside in pursuit of the next thing is worthwhile as you leave and make a new beginning.
Even if you're excited about what comes next, leaving "what is" can be taxing and trying. In the midst of goodbyes, simple tasks — like packing or cleaning — can seem daunting. Be patient with yourself; transition isn't easy on anyone. Cut yourself some slack. Choose healthy ways to cope: some need to process with friends or mentors, while others need to step back and quietly reflect on what's happening. Do things that will help you relax — enjoy life's simple pleasures, socialize and share with others, and celebrate small successes.
Realize this is about more than just you.
Goodbyes can be difficult. Others will be affected by the change too. Everyone reacts differently. You should honor where people are, and mark the departure in a way that gives the opportunity for closure.
As much as you might want to fade into the background, doing so would be a disservice to others. Honoring your feelings and valuing relationships means allowing others to do the same; give others the time and space they need. Cherish the myriad ways that people will find to say goodbye, and be respectful if they choose not to. Leave-taking is about relationship building, too.
When you invest yourself somewhere, it's important to take the same time and care that you've given in day-to-day interactions and apply it to your leaving. Navigating the loss of a community or a ministry, after all, is about navigating and tending to relationships. It requires the recognition that things change but also the recognition of the gift that has been and will continue to be.
Let people know the impact they've had.
In the busyness of your daily life, you don't often take time to stop and name the specific gifts others offer and to reflect back to them the impact they've had. This should be a part of saying goodbye. Such naming not only affirms others, it also allows you to take stock of the gifts you've received and the grace of time well spent in a particular place or ministry.
There is a great grace in reverencing shared relationships. For good or for ill, you are formed by your experiences and by the people with whom you spend your life. Recalling the goodness and the challenges of an experience gives perspective and a more nuanced understanding of how you've been affected by it. Taking the time to process this helps you see the ways you've been called to grow and the ways you've responded. You will carry this greater self-knowledge with you into new experiences, integrating these lessons and using them to expand your capability to be flexible and respond affirmatively to future invitations to growth.
Identify your roots and see how you've grown.
As you say goodbye, it is helpful to identify what grounds you. Times of transition can be challenging and confusing. Remembering the integral experiences, lessons and people who root your being reminds you of who you are and prepares you for future times of change, uncertainty and instability.
Moving on also offers you an opportunity to assess the impact you've had and the legacy you leave. Your presence and manner of being can last far beyond your actual time in a place. You live on in those you work with and they live on in you. That is one of the blessings of being and serving together: we all become one, learning and growing together.
It can be tempting to critique what has been as a way of trying to move on peaceably. But honest reflection is a healthy way of processing your experience and is often filled with graces. The ultimate hope of such reflection, though, is that it will lead to a place of gratitude.
No matter the difficulties you've faced, there is goodness to be found in what you've been through and what has given you life along the way. Giving thanks to God for these graces, big and small, is a sanctifying act — a way of discerning and distinguishing the divine in our midst.
Whether you're coming or going, that's a gift from God. There is a great grace in pausing to cherish it all. May we all count that blessing and embrace the grace of our God-filled journey.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she just completed her service as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and will begin a new ministry in the fall.]