It’s included in the titles of 16 songs in my iTunes library. It’s dreaded, divisive, and sometimes definite. Whether forever or only for a moment, goodbyes are all around us, threatening the end. It can mean leaving behind a place you loved or a person who meant the world to you. It can be simple, a quick chirp at the end of the work day before going home, or it can be permanent. Goodbye finds us whether we want to say it or not. What some people don’t realize, though, is that goodbye comes in multiple levels of severity.
The first goodbye is simple. It’s goodbye for a moment. You say this when you’re going out for coffee or leaving your friend who you’ll see for certain the next day. It’s simple, not something that significantly impacts your life. It’s nothing more than a formality, a word, a jumble of syllables to reflect your intention to leave. It’s happy-go-lucky, winsome, and––compared to the other goodbyes––meaningless.
There’s goodbye for now with its initial stroke of fear and its promise of new opportunity. Now can be a week or a month or a year, but it’s temporary. You say it when you leave to take a new job, or when you drop your brother off at college for the first time. This usually involves leaving behind something or someone precious in order to explore something else. This goodbye doesn’t sting as much as some of the others, but it requires letting go. At first, the change can seem too much. It can be intimidating. But you have to say goodbye, or you won’t grow. This goodbye leads to new horizons, new life. It’s the kind of goodbye you choose to say.
There’s goodbye for awhile with its soft, warm glow and its glimmer of a nostalgic smile, the kind of goodbye that leaves you tingling all over. You say it when you last part with a foreign exchange student or a friend from somewhere far away. Awhile is years, decades, or some indefinite amount of time. No one knows. You know whoever or whatever you bid farewell will still be there, pleasantly existing, having adventures and excitements that you aren’t a part of. For a moment, your paths were twisted, and you shared something. Then twilight came, the days you spent together drew to a close, and your lives separated. Now you will carry on in your separate worlds. You will have your own adventures. There’s peace, though, in knowing that whoever or whatever it is carries on just as you do, that someday in the right circumstances you may be reunited, even if only for a few moments. When you think about this goodbye, it will be bittersweet.
Then there’s goodbye forever, the kind of goodbye that, unfortunately, often hits you suddenly in a hospital waiting room or in an unexpected phone call. It’s the kind of goodbye that takes your breath away and crushes all your bones, so powerful that it temporarily destroys your entire world. Goodbye forever is a lifetime sentence, and you will never be the same because of it. That isn’t to say you’ll be better or worse, but you’ll be different. This is the hardest kind of goodbye because, as long as you live, you will never regain what you lost. You’ll want to reverse the goodbye. You’ll save answering machine messages of them saying “hello” and refuse to accept their empty spot at the dinner table. You’ll make their favorite foods and play their favorite music, and this may give you solace. But the goodbye is irreversible.
Goodbyes hurt in the moment and some of them never stop aching, but they shape who we are. They have a way of pushing us toward where we need to go, even if we never stop resenting them for it. Somehow, they always drop us in the right place. With each goodbye, our life’s path changes, sometimes slightly and sometimes drastically, and we can move forward. Without all kinds of goodbyes, there could never be hellos.