I wanted to share some thoughts on death, loss, grief, and saying goodbye. Ten years ago, I lost a best friend to ALS, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about these things.

Just over a week ago, I lost another loved one. My husband Eric’s oldest brother, Don Colley, passed away. It’s been a painful shock to all of us. Don was a sensitive spirit who made us all laugh and feel loved. Losing him cuts deep.

Grief is very specific to each individual person and each individual circumstance, but I also feel that there are some universal things that we all struggle with when someone whom we love dies. If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one, (past, present, or even an anticipated fear of the future), perhaps you will find some comfort in my words.

The grief process is messy, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed with complicated thoughts and regrets. These feelings will change over time if you don’t deny yourself from feeling them. If you give yourself a chance to live and breathe within the painful thoughts, I believe that you will eventually come to understand them from a perspective of love that turns the pain from “messy grief” into “clean grief.” The loss is still there, but the relationship to the loss changes. Grieving is another form of loving.

Eric was having a difficult time with the fact that he didn’t get to say an actual goodbye to his brother. To a degree, I was as well. I think that many people struggle with this.

People often embrace the notion that we need to have a perfect goodbye where we get to say everything in our heart. But in real life, there is no such thing as a perfect goodbye. Even when you know in advance that a loved one is dying and you’ve been given the opportunity to say goodbye, you often feel like it didn’t come out right or you forgot to say something or you were too overcome with emotions. And when it’s an unexpected death, you may find yourself with a goodbye that means you hadn’t talked in weeks or months. Or maybe the last conversation was an argument. Or you hadn’t responded yet to a voicemail or text. Perhaps you can’t even remember what was said, or you do remember but it was unremarkable: just “see you later” with no hug or “I love you” sentiment.

But this concept that our last exchange or goodbye is somehow more important than every other exchange or goodbye we shared throughout a lifetime is simply not true. People tend to put emphasis on the last exchange, maybe because it’s most recent and thus most vivid in the beginning stages of grief. Or maybe because it fits a storytelling narrative in our minds that makes us believe it should be more important.

But here’s the truth: That last exchange is not the real and only goodbye. You shared a lifetime of moments with someone that you loved. 2020’s moments are not more important than 2012’s moments or 1985’s moments.

Everything that has ever been shared is the sum total of the relationship, which means that we spend a lifetime saying goodbye to the people we love.

In that spirit, I wrote this poem for Eric. He asked me to share it with the world because it helped him.  Maybe you are someone who needs to hear these words too.

There is no such thing as a perfect goodbye

Saying goodbye is not one conversation
Nor is it a single monumental moment

Goodbye is that conversation you had two years ago
It’s the laugh you shared when you were kids
It’s the birthday hug where you squeezed extra hard

It’s every single time you ever connected with love
For a lifetime, not a last time

Those life moments add up to your real goodbye,
Complex and lovely and messy and far from perfect

So when your heart feels regret, and you say, oh, I wish!
I ask that you please remember this:

The last time you said goodbye is not the most important
It’s all the times you said goodbye that really matter

– By Hallie Shepherd, in loving memory of Don Colley

Visit Don’s Tribute Page

Photo Credit (Trees, lavender, and foggy landscape): David Bartus, Pexels

Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.