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I received an email from friends of ours in New Zealand this past week in which they wrote the following

I wonder if you could write a little about the place of goodbyes in our lives and especially with Christian brothers and sisters?  It’s a personal thing for me but I find myself saying ‘see you later’ to people whom I’m leaving and that includes those who are dying.  What words do you and Bev find helpful from your visitors who have come to see you recently? What actions are helpful? This is a bit selfish of me but I want to know how best to behave in that situation and I think you have both experience and wisdom to offer on the subject if you feel up to writing a bit about this.


Saying “goodbye” usually has some degree of sadness attached to it. We may be farewelling someone at the Airport. We expect to see them when they return but their presence will be missed in the meantime. Parents are tearful when their daughter marries and leaves to set up her new home.


But the hardest “goodbye” is the one that has been necessitated by death. The dying person will soon be going on a one-way journey. They will not be returning. They will not be phoning home after they have gone. There will be no emails from them. As the sense of permanence and irreversibility begins to take hold, our emotions come in to play. Some people will resist the reality of what is happening. We call it denial. Others will resort to humour and jokes as though we are not intimidated by the spectre of death.


What is the purpose of a “goodbye” in the context of impending death? In a phrase, we would say that it to make sure that there is “no unfinished business”. It is always heart-breaking to watch people regret that they didn’t say this or that to the deceased before they became that way. It may have been a confession seeking forgiveness, an apology with a word of explanation.

Again, I recall a colleague in Ministry telling me that there were things left unsaid between him and his wife. Good things. Positive things. One day when out shopping, she had a massive heart-attack and had died by the time her husband got to the Hospital. With a faraway, tearful look on his face he said, “I regret to this day that I never had the chance to say goodbye”

In our experience, a healthy “goodbye” just doesn’t happen. It will most often require a degree of planning without becoming a Hollywood production. It will most likely result from low key, sensitive enquiry and suggestion.

Bev and I have said our goodbyes to each other. In fact, we continue to do so. For my part, I thanked her for the privilege of sharing my life with hers on our journey together, for our special children, for her incredible support in the Ministry.  So much came to the surface as we talked together. There were tears and laughter, intimacy and gratitude.

We took time to arrange space so we could talk with our children and our grandchildren. We told them of the enormous pride we felt towards each one of them. We told them of the great joy they brought into our lives.

What words do you and Bev find helpful from your visitors who have come to see you recently?

So far as others visiting Bev (us) is concerned, we want people to know that we are OK with words like “death” and “dying”. We want to be authentic and open in our conversation so we talk about the fact that Bev is dying. In this way we set the example that we hope gives permission to them to ask questions, share their thoughts and say their goodbyes (if that is why they have come).

Part of our authenticity is to also be open with our struggle with the “Why” questions. We do not take kindly to visitors who come along with trite, ignorant and thoughtless answers to those “Why” questions.

 What actions are helpful?

Hugs are good! Genuine tears are welcome. Bev loves flowers. I like slice. We both read the cards that come our way. There is a place for laughter even in that setting of grief.

(I ’m sure you can think of more!!).

Of course, none of these begins to answer the why questions of frail, old citizens who spend every day secured in Nursing Homes and the like.



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