Saying goodbye is a social custom we practice when we leave home, the office, or a party. We take it for granted and assume a "hello" will follow in the near future.
But when the time comes to say goodbye to a loved one at life's end, we often choke. We want to protect him or her, or avoid looking like we've given up hope. We may not realize how close to death he or she is, or we're terrified of broaching the subject because the thought of death is scary, mysterious, and very sad. Sometimes the dying person just doesn't want to "go there." At other times, a friend or loved one may die suddenly, leaving no chance for face-to-face farewells.
When you do say goodbye to someone whose time is short, though, it can be the most meaningful conversation ever exchanged. A goodbye offers a chance to express your love and thanks, resolve conflicts, sum up the importance of your relationship, and acknowledge how the person will be remembered. Hopefully, the dying person can express that he or she is at peace and give loved ones permission to move on with their lives. Saying goodbye can help the survivors grieve.
Goodbyes can last seconds, hours, days, weeks, or even years. They can begin well before death is imminent, or at the very end. They can be exchanged in person, by phone, or on paper -- like the heartfelt note scratched by a West Virginia coal miner who was trapped underground in January 2006. He said he'd see them "on the other side . . . It wasn't bad," he wrote. "I just went to sleep. I love you."
My father died from a cerebral hemorrhage when I was 12, with no chance to say "goodbye" or "I love you," and I developed a strong personal and professional interest in the way we deal with death. In this blog, I'll share compelling stories about goodbyes exchanged and missed. I'll offer advice from people who've recounted their goodbye experiences with me, as well as from experts in the end-of-life care field. I also hope you will be inspired to impart goodbye stories of your own so that we can all be enriched.
My medical consultant for the "goodbyes" project is Janet Abrahm, MD, an expert in end-of-life care who has helped thousands of patients at the edge of death, as well as their families. She directs the Pain and Palliative Care Program at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center in Boston and is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. A fine teacher and caring physician, she is also is author of "A Physician's Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients."