How to Say Goodbye

Every man carries within himself a world made up of all that he has seen and loved; and it is to this world that he returns, incessantly, though he may pass through and seem to inhabit, a world quite foreign to it. -Chateubriand

For those whose world is “quite foreign” to all they have seen and loved – to those for whom what has been seen and loved is synonymous with what has been lost – I address this meditation.  I hesitate to say I am writing this to suggest a solution – because such a phrase presumes too much.  Loss is not necessarily conquered by “getting over” the object of the loss.  Attempts, especially pressurized ones, to get over and move past what or whom one has loved can often backfire, and may indeed involve a subversion of who one is.  Who we love is a reflection of who we are and what we value – and any successful mourning involves a certain celebration of those values, and how they were reflected in the person now gone.

Socrates once wrote that the goal of philosophy is to teach us how to die.  But death, of course, is not a thing, it is not an event we experience.  One second we’re there, the next we are not.  Death is dying, and what is dying but saying goodbye?  But making our peace with those whom we’ve known and loved, of making peace (or not) with who we became and what we didn’t become.  With what we did and did not do.  With who we kissed, who we loved, how we spent our time.

But how to make peace? And is this peace even possible. The following is a meditation on each of the options life presents us with.


Freud, early in his career, stressed the importance of finding human replacements.  He focused on the need to redirect the energy or “libido” from the lost object to a new one.  However, historically this is an aberrant idea.  For example John Milton in his elgiac poem “Lycidas” mourns the drowning of his friend at sea, does not deal with it by trying to obtain some false “closure” but rather by taking comfort in a fiction that he “lives and spreads aloft” in heaven.

In “In Memorium” Tennyson resists being overwhelmed by melancholy by interpreting his friends death as “a divine event”.  Indeed, the very act of writing elegies seemed for many poets to serve as an invaluable tool in gaining a degree of distance and sense of control over the tragedy; as Tammy Clewell writes, “the very act of writing moves the poet from bereaved despair to resolution” in that it instantiates the poet’s aliveness as well as signaling that “the lost one has transcended death by achieving aesthetic immortality in a timeless literary artifact”.

It may be setting the bar a bit high to expect every mournee’s creative output to match a “timeless literary artifact”- but there is something to be said for striving to create something of such beauty that it can serve as an externalization of what was lost – almost a substitute for it.  And when individuals speak of what they know and love, they are often afforded an eloquence otherwise denied them. And by externalizing and representing the lost other, one gains a certain detachment from it.  In other words, the loss of the other is compensated for by replacing it with symbolism, and further mitigated through consolatory fictions such as the rebirth of the dead in God, nature, and the literary work itself.

However, as Tammy Clewell notes, this model of “compensatory mourning” depends on a “denial of otherness, a denial that occurs exactly at that moment the other is externalized and memorialized”.  In other words, integral to the appeal of the other is that they cannot be contained or subsumed wholly in words, that they are not completely understood and therefore can never accurately be represented, regardless of the artistic skill of the mourner. The distance and elusiveness of the other is central to their appeal, and since their very otherness can never be captured by anything we create, it will never serve as anything close to a substitute.

So if artistic memories fail to console, then what other recourse are we left with?


Any meaningful loss is a form of trauma – minor or a major depending on the circumstances and the nature of one’s past experiences of loss.

But what is the traumatic? When something truly awful happens, when something new is seen, in the immediate moment there is nothingness – the self is a blank. Contrary to popular portrayal, grief comes afterwards, after we’ve had time to pause, look away, and look back again (i.e. after we think about and talk about it – which has particular implications for the importance of those whom we speak about trauma with).

Love is the same way.  We do not fall in love when we are with someone, but rather afterwards, in reflection.  The idea of love is born, and nurtured, in solitude.

So it is for all the most notable moments in our lives – we don’t know how immediately to deal with the unexpected, whether good or bad. Our minds blank out because “we do not as yet know how to think it. There is something unthinkable about such facts of life,” as psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas writes. Beyond being normal, he also felt this temporary blankness to be necessary.

Winnicott noticed that in his work with infants they needed time to recover from a thing done: he would present the infant with a spatula, the infant would have a look at it – a new object and therefore a new fact of life – and then look away; if he tried to force this new fact upon the infant the child would become distressed and cry, but if the spatula was allowed to stay there, exist in all its initial dumbness, then the infant could return to it with interest and investigate.

The implication here is that goodbye does noy happen at the moment of parting – it happens afterwards. We are never truly there for a significant goodbye, it takes place within ourselves afterwards, when we are alone.

The blankness of these momentous moments sometimes never get replaced, or sometimes the blankness returns later on, which in the case of loss is almost always a sign of serious trauma. These vital events get dumped into the cemetery of the past – an attempt to wash clean our histories of their vitality and difference – but in the process we also, as Bollas notes, “eradicate our lived experiences by forgetting them, turning discrete experiences laden with love and hate, turmoil and serene beauty, into a globular notion – the past. The term signifies the ultimate decay of finite lived experience.”

By consigning the beauty and variety of our history into a global, indifferent concept “the past” we are obliviating it.  We lose all the meaningful details, the hints of our past selves, of who we were and what we loved. And by losing who we were, we lose an essential part of who we are. As Oscar Wilde noted: “One is at every moment what one was and what one will be.”

Saying goodbye successfully is not just writing a poem about it and throwing it away, and it is not trying to forget it. The first lacks the difference and therefore the vitality of the other, and the second throws away a part of ourselves in the process.

Excavation and Narrative

Saying goodbye involves another. It is not a solitary activity – the only reason we have tears and facial expressions of anguish and pain is to alert others to our distress and call them to our side through the miracle and magic of compassion and sympathy. We are in pain and this pains others, which in turn motivates them to console. And we require consolation – we require those who listen, who are there, who truly care.

The presence of the other, and how they receive us can alter fundamentally how we respond to the loss. It affects the narrative we form around it. It affects how we think and feel about it and the kind of promises we make to ourselves about the future, the kind of things we begin to believe about ourselves in light of this loss. Were we responsible? Did we deserve to be left? Do we deserve to be dead in their place? What have we to hope for now?

The process of talking about our past in a detailed way brings back the self we were before the loss, and revives our experiences from the graveyard of the past into a living, breathing thing. This is the work of history, which is not a static concept like the past, but rather an active working through of who we’ve been and what we’ve done, of excavating and seeing what we can use of the past to make our future.

And while the grand narrative of what happened is important, recovering the individual moments, in all their pathos and power, is most important – particularly because these are the first things that are skipped or glossed over in our recollections. And not just any moments, but those that stick in our minds. The images that we will never forget, we never forget for a reason. They mean something. They are known as “screen memories, and Bollas says this about them:

Each of us contains historical sets, which congregate memories of simple events during the various epochs of our childhood; these screen memories bear the history of self experience, and insofar as they are often made up of displaced desire and trauma, they inevitably contain the essence of the more profound moments of our lives.

But when a person talks about his past, are these the events he describes? Almost certainly not. If given ten minutes, or half an hour, or even two hours, to tell another about one’s own ‘case history,’ then the person will usually start with where he was born and raised, who his parents were, what events occurred in his childhood and adolescence, where he was educated, what interested him, what hobbies or sports he engaged in, and so forth. Since life affords us hundreds if not thousands of possibilities to create such historical narratives, after a while the person will even become rather practiced in them.

Bollas notes that when his patients switch from overarching narratives of the past to recollections of specific experiences “the atmosphere changes strikingly, and all but the senile are alert and concentrated, to hear – at last – from the patient”.

Why is this important and what does this have to do with saying goodbye?  In order to relieve ourselves of the dead weight of the past, we need to first bring it back – in all its finite detail. Not to shun it, but to normalize it, to mythologize it, almost. To in whatever way we please to talk about it and integrate it into who we are. And to mitigate our fear of it, and our fear of the reoccurence of loss as well.


But how does one integrate the unthinkable? How does one make meaning out of pure, unadulterated darkness? Out of the pain and misery and pangs of what has been ripped from us. While loss involves acknowledging what about them resonated with who we are, apart from them, and what was bourne in us through our contact with them – it also acknowledges the eternal elusiveness of the other – again that they can never be captured, and our grief must be passed through and cannot be avoided. Oscar Wilde has some of the most affecting lines ever written about response to loss, his farewell to all the years lost to hard labor in prison, and the death of who he was:

Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering. Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said –

‘Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark And has the nature of infinity.’

But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things in the world than that. I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door. If I got nothing from the house of the rich I would get something at the house of the poor. Those who have much are often greedy; those who have little always share. I would not a bit mind sleeping in the cool grass in summer, and when winter came on sheltering myself by the warm close-thatched rick, or under the penthouse of a great barn, provided I had love in my heart. The external things of life seem to me now of no importance at all. You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived – or am arriving rather, for the journey is long, and ‘where I walk there are thorns.’

But were things different: had I not a friend left in the world; were there not a single house open to me in pity; had I to accept the wallet and ragged cloak of sheer penury: as long as I am free from all resentment, hardness and scorn, I would be able to face the life with much more calm and confidence than I would were my body in purple and fine linen, and the soul within me sick with hate.

And I really shall have no difficulty. When you really want love you will find it waiting for you.

Humility then is the frank acceptance of what happened, and it is the single flower that rises from the grave of what we have lost.

Loss as the Foundation of the Self – and thus our Ambivalence

But what we must have the humility to accept is not just loss and our grief, but other, less talked about phenomena. This other phenomena, to be understood, must be placed in context.

From beginning to end, life is a slow procession of losses. Loss of the womb, loss of the close intimate relationship with the mother, loss of childhood (and its real or imagined carefree nature), and then the loss of faculties, family and friends as adult life wears on.

Freud theorized that loss, particularly the early unavoidable loss of the womb and the mother, serve as the foundation of subjectivity. We only become aware of ourselves as individuals as the result of separation – of loss. Our sense of self develops as a reaction to this separation, and it formed out of the lost residue of the other that remains in consciousness. Just as our corpses one day will feed the earth, so too do the corpses of those we’ve lost form the foundations of who we are today. We are, as it were, perpetually haunted – though the destruction of these ghosts would also mean the destruction of our very selves.

But this foundation is a shaky one, in that our feelings for the other are never anything but ambivalent. Ambivalence also marks the very division between self and other – at times a division we wish to be destroyed so a perfect union could be attained, and at other times one we wish to be fortified with a moat that can never be crossed, barricaded by seperaphims with flaming swords and fortressed by a wall that can never be scaled or breached so that we can never be reached. Ambivalence and the aggression and anger accompanying it must be addressed. Our feelings for those around us are never pure while they are alive; why would it be so after they are gone?

The hatred and the ambivalence is the phenomena that often complicates grief, the vacillations between longing for the lost and wanting to do away with them violently, the anger at their influence then and now, the sense that even though we miss them they do not deserve our longing. The sense they do not deserve the place in our hearts that they take, they deserve to be taken down a notch. But yet there they are nonetheless – deserved or not, warranted or not, desired or not.

Our feelings are not so simple as naive spectators may imagine, and so we often wrestle not only with the complexity of our feelings but also with the sense of guilt about them. If only grief was our only reaction!

The urge to renounce the influence, to do away with history, to do away with what brings our spirits back to earth is what leads Sylvia Plath to attempt to kill off the influence of her father in her famous elegiac poem “Daddy”… Intense love is married with intense hatred and the desire to get rid of the persisting emotional ties, and so she writes “Daddy, I have had to kill you… Daddy, daddy, you bastard. I’m through.”

This same drive is also what inspires Wilde to write of every man killing that which he loves. We kill it because we are threatened by the vulnerability inherent in love, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable nature of it, and how through it we lose control of ourselves. It is dangerous, and we are both attracted and repelled by it, and the longer we sway between one and the other, the longer we will be under its domination.

A Final Note

So then how does one say goodbye? One says goodbye not through acknowledging the transience of existence and of all things or repudiating desire – we say goodbye through recognizing the only things worth saying goodbye to are the things that will never leave us – until we as well part for the last time.

Nine years after the death of his daughter Freud wrote that, “Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”

We do not want to relinquish it because it is part of who we are. The presence of the other among the voices that rule our lives is not something to hate or resent, but to welcome with open arms, and with love and hospitality. For just as our existence is contingent upon the traces of others within us, so too is the trace of ourselves within others what sustains them. That trace lives on in all who have loved and lost us, and its glimmers will light up the stars after we are all rejoined with them mindlessly as particles in eternity.


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