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Rolheiser: What’s in a farewell?

30 May 2022

Appears in: Columnists

Farewells can be hard. When we love someone who is going away, there’s always a sadness, and a particularly heart-wrenching one when that loved one is going away in death.

Yet, we know from experience that at the end of the day farewells are not so much a death as a transition. One way of being present to each other is ending and giving way to another that is just beginning and will better serve love in the long run.

This may sound abstract. It’s not. We experience it daily in our lives. For example: consider a young woman graduating from high school and moving away from the family home to live on her own. For her parents, this can be a painful. Your little girl is no longer your little girl – and her goodbye to you as you drive away from helping her move into her new place will imprint in you that she is no longer little and she is no longer yours. Something fundamental has changed, and it can be hard to let go of how she had once been present to you. But, she isn’t dead. Far from it, rather her life is now opening up to a new richness; she is taking a major and necessary new step in her growth, even as that step includes a major change in how she will now be present to you.

How will she be present to you now that she has left your house and is living on her own? Paradoxically, she may be more present to you now than she ever was before, though in a different way. Now, as an adult, she has things to give you that the little girl who lived in your house could not give you. Granted, young children can trigger a very special love in their parents, but an adult daughter or son can trigger something else, that’s also very rich. That’s why every girl or boy eventually needs to speak to her or his parents the words Jesus spoke to his disciples on the night before he died, it is better for you that I go away.  If I don’t go away, you will always have a child in your house, but if I go away, I will come back to you as an adult and bring you a new richness.

The cold separation of a farewell can eventually give way to a warm, deeper coming together, one that no longer depends on physical proximity. An honest goodbye is a transition, not an ending.

This holds true in an even more poignant way vis-a-vis the farewell that takes place with death. We don’t lose our loved ones in death; we experience a transition in their presence. At a funeral, we are experiencing the same transition of presence and relationship that parents experience when a son or daughter grows up and moves out.  At a funeral, of course, the emotional stakes are much higher, but the dynamic is ultimately the same. A fundamental shift is taking place in the relationship. In the case of death, it generally takes some time, years perhaps, before we recognize that this was a transition not a death. Allow me a personal example.

When I was twenty-three years old, in the space of three months, both my father and mother died. They were still young (sixty-two and fifty-eight respectively). Our family was also still young, too young (by our own assessment) to be asked to absorb this. Hence, initially their deaths were felt as a cold, bitter severing, death rather than transition. However, time heals, and not just because irrespective of the depth of the pain eventually we move on. In our case, time also healed because eventually we began to sense our parents’ presence again, in a richer and deeper way than we had known before their deaths. They went away, but they came back, richer, warmer, and deeper.

In his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples not to fear or grieve too much his departure. He keeps repeating the words, it is better for you that I go away. If I do not go away, I cannot send you my spirit. He is like that young daughter who is leaving home to start her own life and is saying a painful goodbye to her parents, but a goodbye that is predicated on the fact that she will now be able to be present to them in a different and very rich way. Her farewell is not a death, but a transition.

Farewells and goodbyes, including those at funerals, are not unnatural relational ruptures that go against God’s plan and against how relationships are supposed to culminate. That can be the case, of course, when a farewell or goodbye is occasioned by anger, hatred, abuse, or violence. However, when the goodbye is the natural outgrowth of the cycle of life itself, the death experienced is really only part of the rich, ineffable, paradoxical mystery of love itself.