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When You Can’t Be There to Say Goodbye

rocking chair

Life is so— Well, there are a lot of words that could finish that sentence. But right now, the best one seems to be— fragile.

You never know what tomorrow will bring.

And while fear can flood from many sides, perhaps the greatest concern is not being there for someone at the end.

The reasons could be varied. It was unexpected. You live too far away. Or, during this pandemic, you simply may not be allowed in the same room. Hence the pictures of family members pressed up against windows.

It’s heartbreaking.

But what can you do to ease the pain? How can you say goodbye when you can’t hold their hands?

Get as Close as You Can

I’d climb every mountain
And swim every ocean
Just to be with you
And fix what [is] broken.

—Calum Scott (“You are the Reason”)

 

Maybe you can’t be there to wipe their brow, but you can still whisper in their ear.

  • Call on your phone.
  • Zoom.
  • Even peek in the glass windows.
  • Or do all of them at the same time.

You can sing their favorite song. Read their most comforting verse. Repeat a joke they told a thousand times.

Have the nurses hold the phone close for them to hear your voice. Or turn on the speaker phone. Story after story lately tells of nurses’ and caregivers’ willingness to help make those connections. They get how hard this is.

So take whatever steps you have available to reach out.

And then take comfort in the fact that, if family can’t be there in those last hours, often someone from the staff will sit next to the bed. So no one dies alone.

 

Don’t Leave Things Unsaid

One more day. One more time…
I'd unplug the telephone and keep the t.v off
I'd hold you every second, Say a million I love you's
That’s what I’d do with one more day with you.

—Diamond Rio [“One More Day”]

 

Most days, life pounds on our door, rushing us out and down the street with hardly a word to our loved ones.

But end of life?

Suddenly, there’s all those thoughts we wanted to say but didn’t. They circle around in our brain, wishing for “one more day” to get them out.

The love you’s and thank you’s. Proud of you’s. Miss you’s.

You don’t know when that last moment will be. So take every moment as if it’s the last.

Say them now.

Again, use the phone. Skype. Zoom. Yes, it’s always great to say the words when you’re face to face. But it doesn’t mean any less through technology.

 

Write Out What You Want to Say—and Send It

I know I'm leavin' here a better man
For knowin' you this way
Things I couldn't do before now I think I can
And I'm leavin' here a better man

—Clint Black [“Better Man”]

 

Sometimes in those last moments, all those emotions get tied up, binding your tongue and all your words with them.

So take time to write them down.

  • Write a letter.
  • Include those wonderful family stories of “Remember when…”
  • Tell them what they've taught you, who you’ve become, what you’ll cherish

And deliver it. Snail mail, email, texted, or hand-carried, get it into their hands—or the nurses who care for them.

You have a lot to say? They can read it in spurts. A little at a time between naps.

Even if they’re in a coma or unconscious, studies show they may still hear you—or whoever is reading your words.

And if it’s too late? Everything just went way too fast? Still write that letter. This time, do it for you.

A chance to say goodbye on your own. It’s healing.

 

Surround Yourself with Their Memories

And [Mama] said, “How can I help you to say goodbye?
It’s okay to hurt and it’s okay to cry

Come let me hold you and I will try. How can I help you to say goodbye?”

—Patty Loveless

 

You know the adage. “You love people and use things. Don’t ever mix those up.”

Definitely true!

But sometimes using special things can remind you of people you’ve loved.

These don’t have to be expensive items. It’s the value of memories that you’re looking for here.

  • Could be Mom’s old sewing machine.
  • Dad’s drill.
  • Grandma’s cake tin.
  • Grandpa’s Bible.

Perfect example? Sandy Lanton’s beautiful picture book, Daddy’s Chair.

Little Michael, struggling with his dad’s death, only lets relatives sit in his father’s favorite chair on one condition.

They have to tell him stories about his daddy. It helps Michael come to grips with his loss.

So don’t be too quick to unload everything at Goodwill. We aren’t talking about keeping a ton. But find a few distinctive pieces packed with memories that help you carry on something special of theirs.

Those recollections—and the emotions that come with them—are a healthy way to work through saying goodbye.

 

Forgive Yourself

How could I have known you'd ever say goodbye
The way it all would end the way it all would go
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

—Garth Brooks

 

Personal story? I missed my mom’s passing by a few hours. Had my plane tickets and everything, but my timing was off, and she died just before I boarded.

It’s something I think of often. Why didn’t I get the ticket for a few hours earlier? Or even the night before?

Thing is, I didn’t understand how sick she was. And I can’t go back and fix it.

There will always be decisions you regret. If there’s time, hopefully you can ask forgiveness from them.

If there isn’t, you need to forgive yourself.

Especially if it wasn’t something you did wrong—you just wish you’d done it differently.

For me, I had to accept that, at the time, I made what seemed the best plan. And in the end, I don’t control the world. As much as I would have liked to be there when Mom died, my delay meant I ended up being with my husband when I found out, not alone. And he flew down with me, helping with procedures that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to handle.

Yes, I still wish I’d been there to hold her hand.

But my dance came with different music. One that required a little bit of grace and forgiveness.

For myself.

 

When You Walk Through the Storm

God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there…

The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on

Bring him peace
Bring him joy

—Les Misérables

 

Death and goodbyes are sadly a regular part of our lives, especially right now.

But then what?

Grieving doesn’t end overnight. If you’re struggling, check out my earlier posts on handling grief and surviving holidays after you’ve lost a loved one.

If you need someone to talk to? Find a listening ear – someone whose shoulders are drip-dry. Maybe someone who’s been there.

Because life? Yes, it’s fragile. And it can be heartbreaking.

But there is hope.

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Guest post written by Elizabeth Daghfal

Elizabeth Daghfal

Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it—except for the fifteen months of winter. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry.

When she isn’t teaching or writing—who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she’s ALWAYS teaching and writing. But she also loves reading, singing, creating art, and just trying to stay ahead of the stories and research in her head. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.


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