Over the weekend, my family and I were with my oldest daughter as she graduated from college. It was a joyous time, a time to celebrate a substantial milestone in her life and in the lives of so many mostly young people. But it was also a sorrowful time, a time for these same mostly young people to say goodbye to others who have become central to their lives. Both hearty laughter and muffled sobs could be heard in virtually every circle of friends, family and faculty. I, like most parents that I observed, found myself standing somewhat awkwardly in the midst of the circle, wanting to help my daughter through this difficult but clearly important moment in her life but realizing that it was probably best that I allow her to find her own way.
How many times does a person say goodbye in an average life? Many, I suppose, but most of those times are the everyday, normal sort of goodbyes such as that which one utters to one’s spouse when leaving for work in the morning or that which one offers to friends after a shared evening meal. But what about those real goodbyes, the ones like my daughter experienced yesterday, the ones that mark a real turning from one chapter to another in a human life… how many of those do we experience in our lives? Not as many; precious few, actually. And on those soul-stirring occasions, how does one offer a proper goodbye? What words does one say? What thoughts and feelings does one give?
On our Sundays at church over the past several weeks, we have been reading from the farewell discourses of Jesus in the book of John. Over the course of four chapters, Jesus says goodbye to friends with whom he has been traveling for three years. The reader gets the sense that Jesus understands the significance of the occasion, and is intent on providing a proper goodbye to his friends. He has important things to tell them to prepare them for the time that he will no longer be with them, and one cannot help but feel a certain urgency in his words. These chapters are filled with remembering and thanksgiving and weighty truth-telling, but more than anything else, these chapters are filled with words of love. In his goodbye to those closest to him, Jesus is intent on communicating that what they have all experienced over the last three years is love. He needs them to know that while the shape and form of this love will change as they all turn to a new chapter in their lives, love will, nevertheless, relentlessly remain. Jesus is insistent that love has been the source of their relationship and that love will continue to be the lifeblood. Neither a change in geography, nor a transition to a different life path, nor even death itself can alter the persistent presence of love. That kind of love comes from God, and it is tenacious. It cannot be terminated or killed. And that kind of love flows in our relationships with each other as well, whether we consciously recognize it or not. That kind of love, too, cannot be extinguished.
So, when saying our goodbyes to each other, speak love. Speak of love experienced and speak of love that persists. Tell of love that has bound you to the other and love that stubbornly refuses to unbind. Proclaim love that has made you one with the other, love that has made you whole, love that has sustained, and love that persists. Or better, don’t say anything at all. Just allow that same love to fill the sacred goodbye space and know that God is in your midst. There are no right words in a proper goodbye. There is only love.