Goodbyes are polarising—we feel overwhelmed or just a tinge of grief or relief. Crudely put, there are those four probable outcomes. Not often do we feel the discordant emotions of grief and relief together (apart from the death of a loved one who’s been in pain, for example).
Typical human experience has us exposed to both sorts of goodbyes.
The one is horrendous; our control over the situation, gone. In a word, “grief.”
The other is so pleasant it’s untouchable. This sense of wellbeing is quite estranged to normal life; for a time, and it is fleeting, we enjoy the mountain vistas from the peak. In a word, “relief.”
So from two opposite poles we have despair or hope; numbness or joy; sorrow or peace; struggling to let go or thrilled to hold on.
What differentiates our experience of grief or relief is the matter of control.
If we have chosen to say goodbye, notwithstanding the grief processed in coming to that decision, there is a real sense of relief in the outworking of the decision.
If we have, on the other hand, not chosen to say goodbye—that another person or situation has said goodbye to us—we are overwhelmed in our grief, because the process of adjustment has only just begun and our control, for the time being, has vanished.
This is why it works out, that, when a marriage fails, one partner is generally relieved and the other partner is generally aggrieved. The relieved partner has done their grieving. The partner who has been blindsided has had grief foisted upon them, for they didn’t see it coming.
Restoring Control and Identity
Despite many in the faith having firm views about surrender and control, and, in God, not actually seeking control, we do need to restore control if we are to live a generally happy and peaceful life. When grief swarms, and relief is never more distant, we would give anything for a semblance of control—to be at peace with ourselves.
Control, in the context of goodbyes, is about our identities.
When goodbye is about letting go, and we find we cannot let go, we are bound to an existing identity, and we cannot, for that time being, venture onward toward the new identity. That is the grief process. It takes us from unacceptance to acceptance; a process that cannot be rushed, just cooperated with. In the meantime, we are gentle with ourselves. Identity is rebuilt slowly.
Goodbyes involve either grief or relief; the former is about dealing with shock, and the latter is about receiving the door’s knock. Both involve control: in grief we lose it; in relief we have it. In grief we need patience and to be gentle with ourselves.
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.
This is a companion article to, When It’s Time to Say Goodbye. If goodbye resonates with you, just now, in terror or in pleasure, my prayer is for you: to get what you need from God.