If I had a shirt I could have worn throughout my childhood and teen years of moving around the world, it would spell out these words from my all-time favorite quote: “I hate goodbyes.”
Goodbyes for me meant leaving countless close friends I could completely be myself around. I had to constantly leave behind or be left behind by the friends I had sleepovers with, tape-recorded little adventures with and shared secrets with. A history of “last times” with friends I grew up with, in one to two-year time spans, perforated the timeline of my days with them.
Goodbyes also meant living away from my parents through some childhood years that will never be repeated. When the tuition of the limited options for English education was beyond my parents’ budget, I at times needed to live with my grandparents and cousins in another country. Political unrest in the country of our expat assignment also sometimes led to the need for me to live away from my parents.
I also had to let go of favorite places, classes, teachers and school staff, foods, and TV shows. Goodbyes cut short the time I had with loved ones as well as whole environments. This can take a toll on emotions when it’s repeated so often and when it occurs before a child or adolescent has had a chance to know what stability feels like.
Frequent goodbyes can make one want to feel numb. However, I am not. Something always pulled me back to feeling the pain of good-byes each time they happen and I could not figure out why I had not developed a coping mechanism to feel less of the pain as I got older. I took psychology courses in college and learned more about human development in my graduate education for social work.
None of the theories or case studies ever seemed to satisfactorily discuss my sense of grief at goodbyes or the enormity of their effects on my life. The newer goodbyes — even those I that were unintentionally re-enacted by children around me — were connected to the goodbyes of my youth.
I only figured it out when I experienced the deepest goodbye I have ever experienced in my life thus far: the goodbye journey I had with my mother when she passed away. It wasn’t until she passed away earlier this year that I reflected on how she said goodbye to me throughout the years.
My mother would confront each goodbye with me and other loved ones through the very last moment of it. Before the historical event that changed airport security practices worldwide, she would watch her loved one not only board a plane but also watch the plane fly away until it was smaller than a dot in the sky. My mother would watch the car of her loved one drive away until it turned a corner or the tail lights were so far, they were less than sparkles at night. She would watch my school bus drive away until she could no longer see it after shifting her position or peering around obstacles in her line of sight.
My mother knew how to say goodbye because she did not fear the pain of it. She confronted the pain of goodbyes in a way that most think unnecessary or too overwhelming to tolerate. It seems almost unthinkable how a wife of a foreign service career diplomat who moved so often can still be willing to feel the pain of goodbyes. After making a home for her family and connecting with friends as intimately as she would with her own siblings or children, she would repeatedly leave behind everything she wholeheartedly put herself into.
I wondered, “How did she do that? How can my mom bear the pain over and over again? How can it not tear her down to wanting to just give a little less the next time around and even less after that?”
When I think about my parents’ last foreign assignment, in Bahrain, I am even more bewildered. It was at this last post that my mothers’ capacity to connect with people seemed to shine the brightest. Her own brother mentioned how shocked he was at the countless number of my mother’s genuine friends during his visit to Bahrain. In the single setting of a hospital waiting room, my uncle witnessed a diverse pool of visiting friends who were deeply affected when my mother had a major disabling stroke at the age of 57. The repeated visits of numerous friends arriving in shifts for weeks demonstrated to him a deeper level of friendship than courtesy visits for a diplomat’s wife.
Reflecting back, I see that this meant, instead of giving less of herself after each goodbye, she was able to become even more genuine after each move.
I grew up noticing how my mother would start a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in the stranger’s children and spouse, sibling or aging parents they left behind. She connected with people of different backgrounds: from the visiting Korean concert pianist who accompanied a world touring Filipino violinist, to the Filipino factory worker, to the photographer for the royal family, to the husband and wife musician team at the hotel, to fellow ambassador wives who also missed their children who were away. In turn, they connected with her as their mother, dear sister, or aunt. In person, I have met at least five individuals who called my mother, “mom.” I am an only child.
It occurred to me that the reason my mother was able to connect so well to people was her lack of fear of the pain of goodbyes. The reason she faced the pain of goodbyes was so that she could look forward to the next hello. Feeling the pain ensured she was still present and that she had herself to offer again for the next hello with her loved ones as well the next hello with strangers. It was as if she knew she would not run out of what sourced her to keep giving.
My mother grew up in the era when overseas travel involved loved ones parting at a ship dock. The person on the ship would throw and stay connected with the person at the dock with a string one person would hold on one end and the other person would hold on the other until the string snaps. I believe my mother faced the heart-wrenching emptiness of watching someone leave and withstood the position of being the one left behind because emotionally, she knew she would be ok after feeling the pain. Finding a way to live with the pain of goodbyes allowed her to spend every last moment possible in the presence of those she loved. Even to be near enough to the plane that took off was special to her. The cost of the pain in doing things like this was worth it for her. Perhaps this fueled her until she could make it to the next reunion with loved ones.
We, as a third-culture kid or global nomad tribe, must know that we can be ok after feeling the pain of goodbyes so that we can look forward to the next hellos. It is healthy to feel pain. We need to embrace the heart-wrenching pain of goodbyes so that we can embrace the joys of the hellos and the connections that can form from them.
I realized the answer I was looking for just were not in textbooks. I hated goodbyes and hate the remnants of painful goodbyes from my youth still, but I continue to face them anyway because it is part of the journey of valuing relationships. Without feeling pain at the last moments with people we value, how do we know we are allowing ourselves to experience the full extent of vulnerability that allows for growth in relationships? Pain is a miserable emotion, but without it, we miss the broad spectrum of life and relational experiences. Without pain, how do we know we are truly alive?
The entirety of my all-time favorite quote states, “Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together forever? Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. And then we have to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes… You know what I need? I need more hellos” (Charles M. Schulz, “Snoopy, Come Home!” 1972, song “It Changes”).
The next time you find yourself dreading goodbyes, consider how your last goodbyes can prepare you to embrace your next hellos.
Dedicated to my mom, Evangeline V. Dumapias, who passed away on March 15, 2014, and all wives or husbands who give so much of themselves in their support of a spouse with a globally mobile career.
For other topics related to goodbyes, particularly as it relates to aging, disability and caregiving, written by Myra Dumapias, MSW, please visit The Last Boarding Call. For more information on and resources for the third-culture kid community, please visit TCKid.