By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy
I just saw the documentary “Restless Creature” at the Digital Gym in North Park. In the film, New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan talks about the challenges of ending her 30-plus year career as a prima ballerina.
At the age of 47, Ms. Whelan’s body told her that it was time to say goodbye to her ballet career. Ms. Whelan is sad, afraid, and excited as she says goodbye to the only world she’s ever known and moves into a new world: She starts her own production company, choses the choreographers and pays all the bills. She leaves ballet behind and jumps into something new: modern dance.
You needn’t be a retiring ballerina to find this relevant: We ALL have to say goodbye, over and over again, regardless of our age or situation. Haven’t you had to say goodbye to:
- Places you’ve lived, whether towns, houses, apartments, or even countries.
- Friends you’ve loved.
- Pets you adored.
- Youthful dreams/hopes/fantasies.
- Lovers and partners.
- You’ve probably even said goodbye to your flat stomach, small waist, perfect skin, amazing biceps, perfect vision and/or thick hair.
We all have to say goodbye, repeatedly, from our youth to our old age, but how do we do it well?
Sometimes, saying goodbye is a choice and it seems easier: you get a new job; you think it’s best to end your relationship; or you decide to move to San Diego from Sacramento. It’s nice when you have the option to make a change and it doesn’t feel “forced” on you.
When saying goodbye isn’t your choice, it’s usually more difficult: you get laid off; your lover finds someone new; your low-rent apartment goes condo; or your dear dog/cat/beloved pet dies. This isn’t at all what you wanted, but, voila, here it is … your new reality. How do you say goodbye and keep your sanity? How do you plan for what’s next? How to you “move on,” as the Stephen Sondheim song goes.
First of all, expect to feel a lot of emotions. I’ve ended relationships and had lovers end them on me, and both were painful. I’ve been fired from jobs (twice) and quit more than a few. After a really bad car accident, my body hurt for quite a while, and until I recovered, I was very frightened. Years ago, I watched one of my closest friends get hooked on crystal meth until I was forced by his repeated denial of the problem — and his verbal cruelty — to let him go.
And I did. And it still hurts. And I still think of him. And I know that I did the right thing.
I still miss my cat who ran out into the road and was killed when a friend house-sat for me and left the front door open for too long.
You too? It’s hard to say goodbye with no regrets, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not possible, but we can aspire to live in the present and not dwell in the past.
Since saying goodbye is a part of life, why not learn to do it more skillfully? The next time you have to say goodbye, you could:
Focus on the present and what feels good/exciting to you now. It’s okay to make some (fairly loose) plans for the future, but stay in the present as much as possible.
Grieve the past: consider creating a ritual to do it justice. When my pets die — or my friends died of AIDS or cancer — I did a ritual for each one who passed on. When I move to a new place, I do a little ritual saying “goodbye” to the old home and “hello” to the new one.
Acknowledge that saying goodbye is both exciting and scary: You don’t get excitement without some fear coming along for the ride.
Let yourself feel all of your emotions: painful, joyful and everything in-between. Denying them just pushes them underground, where you’ll have to deal with them later. Don’t go there. Let them be felt now.
Whether we want to or not, life continually forces us to say goodbye to people, places and experiences. How we do it will greatly affect the quality of our life. Can we do it with skill and awareness, or will we go kicking and screaming? The choice is ours.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.