HELP LINE: How do you say the unsayable ‘goodbye’?

HOW DO YOU say “goodbye,” when you can’t say goodbye?

I don’t know.

I’ll explain.

I have a buddy … well, actually, that understates it: A close, personal friend.

She’s been an elder for as long as I’ve known her, which isn’t really all that long, but it was one of those relationships in which two people just “find” each other — immediately.

A quick friendship

And it blossomed into a genuine friendship quickly.

We’d talk, laugh and cackle over coffee. Tell stories, tease and roll our eyes.

Say things that we probably shouldn’t have said and tell secrets that we probably shouldn’t have told.

But we always — instinctively — knew when it was time to be serious, because something was sincere.

And then we’d laugh and laugh and laugh.

We shared things that were true; sometimes, truer than we knew.

We were friends.

We still are.

Dementia Road

But, a while back, she started heading down Dementia Road — probably Alzheimer’s — and it began as these things begin: Slowly, gradually, infinitesimally, insidiously.

Rather like the waves beat on a beach: It’s so gradual that it’s almost imperceptible, which makes it easy to ignore.

To deny.

Until you’re away for a while, then come back and realize, “Wow …”

Little pieces were gone, going.

Little pieces.

Less than there was, but it all looks the same.

As inevitable as erosion, because it’s human erosion.

And you just can’t deny it, anymore.

And way too many of us know exactly what I mean.

Here but gone

Now, she’s gone. But, she’s still here.


So, you do the best you can.

You keep on being who you’ve always been the way you’ve always been.

You don’t correct, argue or object to repeating yourself, and you grab every little moment of presence — those little attacks of clarity in which she is her — with amazement, gratitude and a secret slice of … hope: maybe …

But, no. It really is what it is, and it makes your stomach hurt.

Going, going … gone.

But she’s still here.

Hardcore hospice people — magical folks who spend their time working with and for people that are dying — have a lot to teach us about death, if we listen.

One of the things they have to teach us is about saying “goodbye.”

That goodbye can be for the dying person, but it’s also a lot about us: That we need to say goodbye — known in some circles, I suppose, as “closure.”

I’ve seen that. I’ve lived that. I believe that.

A goodbye is needed

So, I know what I need to do. I need to say goodbye to this wonderful friend. And how the hell am I going to do that?

Sometimes she knows me, sometimes she doesn’t. But, regardless, I seem to be someone she likes.

So what, exactly, do we suggest?

Shall I go see her and blurt out a tearful goodbye?

What’s that going to do? Upset her? Frighten her?

Shall I go on and on about all the things we’ve done? How much fun we had?

What’s that going to do?

Shall I tell her how much I’ll miss her? How much I miss her now?

What’s that going to do?

Right: That doesn’t sound like love or friendship to me, so here’s what I guess I’ll do.


Because I don’t know what else to do.

I’ll just have to live with that little hole in my heart where “goodbye” ought to be, and say what I need to say to … the universe? To God? To whomever might be listening.

‘Vaya con Dios’

And whisper, “Vaya con Dios” under my breath, when I need to.

It’s the best I can do, because it’s all I know to do.

How do you say “goodbye,” when you can’t say goodbye?

I don’t know.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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