Is saying “goodbye” the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

Road at dusk stretching into sunset

Scene: Greyhound bus depot in a non-descript town, Somewhere USA.

The girl has driven the guy to the bus depot. He’s heading off to [college, war, work-assignment] leaving her behind. Their time together is over. Neither wants it to be over. They linger. If only they could drop everything for their love and stay together for always, right now.

The bus driver shoves bags into the luggage compartment under the bus.

The guy and girl are oblivious.

The driver gets on. Other passengers board.

The guy and girl are right by the door of the bus. Hugging. Kissing. One more hug. One more kiss. It’s time for the bus to leave. The driver calls to the guy and reaches for the handle to close the door.

One more kiss. Then the guy jumps on the bus and even as he drops down on a seat, waving at the girl outside, the driver takes off and the bus heads out on the road.

We’ve all been there. We’ve said goodbye lots of times to people we care about and didn’t really want to leave, but had to. The river of life moves on and we’re floating down it.

There was the first time I headed off to college.

Mom and dad walked with me to the train station. I had my shoulder bag and backpack. All set to go. We were in the familiar, old waiting room. Wooden benches, tiles on the floor. Everything echoed. I was excited to go and yet, didn’t want to go right now. A few last words. Really, everything had already been said.

I’d been away from home before, but this time I wouldn’t be back until the school year was out — 10 months or so.

The train was coming in and we walked out on the platform. A couple people got off, a few got on. This was it. Last hugs and goodbyes and I got on that train. Found a window I could open to wave at mom and dad. Then the station master gave a signal and the train started moving. I leaned out the window looking back at the train station and mom and dad on the platform until the train headed into a curve and I could no longer see them.

Why is saying goodbye so hard?

Let’s start by figuring out what “goodbye” really is. It’s that point of separation after a period of time together. It could be with one person or a group of people. They may have known each other for a long time or just a few hours or days. The key is that connections have been made. Bonding.

Now it’s time to go our separate ways. This point of parting is where we say goodbye. And it’s filled with a mixture of emotion and uncertainty. We liked what we had. It was comfortable, reassuring, exciting. Now we go into the unknown. Things are changing. We’d like to cling to the known, to delay the separation.

The uncertainty of goodbye

Part of the challenge of saying goodbye is that we know that things will change — are changing.

Maybe just a little. When we meet next, we’ll be different people because of our experiences since last we met.

Maybe a lot. That love that was so everlasting turned out to not survive the lovers being apart. When they meet again, they don’t feel the same about each other. Or worse yet, one has changed their mind and the other hasn’t.

So we feel that if we don’t say goodbye, none of the drifting apart will happen.

I won’t say goodbye

Some people “don’t do goodbye” and may get really creative in finding ways to not say the dreaded word:

Like just sneaking out the backdoor when nobody is looking.

Or refusing the parting handshake or hug and stoically saying nothing, just walking off, with everybody looking.

Maybe it’s replacing “goodbye” with another phrase that doesn’t sound so final. As the lyrics from Oliver Twist go: “I love ya that’s why I Say cheerio not goodbye.”

Of course, the parting still happens and we go our separate ways.

There may be a feeling of having cheated fate and avoided the hated goodbye. In reality, we only avoid expressing ourselves with another person and also get no closure. The parting still happens.


We look to soften the blow of a goodbye by reassurances that we’ll be back together.

Maybe we already have fixed a date for when we’ll be back together again:

  • I’ll come back in two weeks
  • See you in a month
  • Same time, same place, next year

Or maybe it’s a more general promise that the relationship will continue:

  • I’ll call tonight
  • We’ll talk soon
  • Or even: “Will you have my guitar restrung?”

The goodbye signifies an ending, but also a future, a continuation to look forward to.

Final goodbye

Of course the truth is that at some point goodbyes become final. Because life on this earth is finite. The question then is did we say everything that needed to be said. Was something left unsettled? Will we have regrets?

My mom lived in Sweden. I lived in the US. My family and I went over to the old country to visit many times. We treasured those times together.

And each time we left, we knew that because of the distance, it might possibly be the last time we saw each other in this life. It weighed on us. The hugs were a little longer. The words a little softer. And we’d talked before it was time to say goodbye. About this. About that. Making sure nothing was left unsaid, should there not be another chance to say it.

So even though it was hard to part, we all felt confidence in looking forward to the next time we’d meet, God willing. And if that wasn’t to happen, it would be okay. No regrets.

Goodbyes are times when we’re clearly reminded of the need to keep short accounts and settle things. There are goodbyes said in anger and all too often there’s then no opportunity to clarify, settle, ask forgiveness. The distance will simply grow into a wall.

Life’s too short for unsettled business and grudges. Be sincere. Settle differences. Forgive.

Lessons from goodbyes

I learned a few things from the many goodbyes I’ve said over the years: Some I expected to be temporary were final, some I expected to be final were temporary. Sometimes you say goodbye for just a short while and it ends up being years or even decades before you meet again.

Sometimes we say goodbye when we really should have dropped everything to stick around and sort out all that was left unsaid and unsettled.

Either way, goodbyes are part of life. Without them, life would be emptier, because there’d also be no “Hello” and reconnecting.

Goodbye means I care

The obvious, glaring truth in all this: The very fact that it’s hard to say goodbye means there is something good in it. A shared experience. A relationship.

Let’s face it, we’ve all been in situations where we couldn’t wait to be able to wrap it up and leave. The encounter was awkward, wrong or even (potentially) dangerous. So we were happy to get out of there and it was really easy to say “goodbye” (Probably really wanted to just go “Beam me up, ScottyI”)

Consider this: When it’s hard to say goodbye, that’s a good sign! We’ve been with people we care about and will continue to care about. There is a relationship there. We have great memories of the time together that is now ending and we’re looking forward to the next time we’re together. As the old saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Sometimes we know that we won’t meet the person we’re saying goodbye to again. Then we still have the memories of the relationship that was. As Rick says when parting from Ilse at the end of Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.” Not only that, but reconnecting with her has changed his life from being totally self-focused to being ready to go join a cause much greater than him.

Wrapping it up

There’s a time for saying Hello and there’s a time for saying Goodbye. If we never say goodbye, we’re probably not living.

The video here is the ending scene from Before Sunrise and it brings us full circle (okay, it’s a train, not a bus, this time). Jesse and Céline met on a train to Vienna. Spent about 24 hours together and now she’s getting on another train to continue her journey and he’s heading to the airport to fly home to the US. It’s time to say goodbye…

So why is it so hard to say goodbye?

I already noted that it’s hard because we care. If we didn’t care, it would be easy.

It’s also hard because goodbyes make the passage of time so very clear. Something is ending. Another section of life’s journey is over. We can’t go back in time and redo. But we have memories that we will always carry with us. And many times goodbye now means looking forward to when next we meet again.

So maybe goodbyes should be treasured as markers of times we really appreciated. In that sense, they are like bookends on memories.

Try this experiment:
Think back to some times you’ve said goodbye
What was the best goodbye you ever said? What made it so special that it stands out in memory?
What was the hardest goodbye you ever said? What made it especially hard?