Life & Culture

Family Matters: If you never can say goodbye, you need to make endings better

By thinking about and discussing our relationships to endings we can develop a healthier way forward


Businesswoman at the airport going away on the business trip

Summer has arrived and for many of us it’s a time of transitions. Changing year group, changing school, changing Wimbledon commentator or changing prime minister — goodbyes are all around us. We all have particular relationships to endings that inform the tone of our goodbyes.

Some hate goodbyes and some indulge in them. A Kveller article from 2015 maps out the ten-step process of a Jewish goodbye, including responding to the indignant cry of “What? But we haven’t had dessert yet?” So what shapes our relationship to farewells and how can we develop a healthier way to end one stage so that we are emotionally ready to begin the next?

Our relationships to endings are usually developed during our formative experiences as young children. In my therapeutic work, occasionally families find it so difficult to say goodbye that they do not turn up to the final session. It is helpful to look at what goodbyes have meant historically for families.

For some, their early endings have been connected to loss or rejection such as parental neglect or sudden parental separation. I once worked with a family in which the father had lost his own father to suicide when he was very young. He struggled with any change that involved an ending as it triggered his feelings of being so painfully abandoned. Saying goodbye revived deep-set agonising memories that he had not been enough to keep his father alive or to hear a goodbye from his father.

For others who have experienced any early grief or loss, endings can trigger traumatic responses such as emotional withdrawal or shutting down. Goodbyes are then avoided altogether or reduced to going through the motions and become hollow.

If you are reading this and rolling your eyes, wondering what all the fuss is about, perhaps you don’t see the point of goodbyes. This attitude is common too, often among families who have experienced stressful or chaotic times and were taught not to dwell on goodbyes but to “get on with it” and “move forwards”, leaving the past behind. These families don’t see goodbyes as relevant and prefer to focus on future practicalities. In some ways this approach is a more productive one, not needing time to process transitions but thriving on change and covering ground.

But usually the emotional impact of multiple transitions cumulates rather than dissipates and stress builds from the unprocessed experiences. I worked with a family who had a severe crisis in which the life of one of their children was threatened. The parents “got on with it” and were calm and functional throughout.

Some years later, following another loss, the mother developed intense exhaustion that did not have any identifiable physical cause, subsequently developing into depression. During the therapeutic treatment she reflected that during the initial crisis, she had been so focused on moving on that she had never allowed herself to feel the worry and fear of the experience. She felt that her exhaustion was her body’s delayed response in which unprocessed feelings had accumulated to breaking point, forcing her to seek treatment and learn how to manage them better.

It is impossible to describe a perfect goodbye because they are all so context-dependent and complex. But chances are that a healthy goodbye includes permission to both grieve for the losses as well as celebrate the achievements of the transition.

It is normal for a mix of emotions to arise, from relief, worry and regret to appreciation, hope and celebration. Especially in therapy, endings can be seen as an opportunity for further positive change in a family’s journey towards emotional well-being.

Alternatively, endings can be anxiety-provoking and need thoughtful planning to manage potential relapses. Working in the NHS, where resources are tight and staff turnover high, endings are all too often also disappointments and frustration towards a system that carries high expectations of delivering wellness in the context of multiple, complex needs. Most endings are not pretty, tied up and smooth.

They are usually messy and complicated with loose ends trailing behind. No two endings are alike, but the important part is taking the time to notice and name the feelings that arise throughout the process.

Whether our goodbyes involve loss, disappointment, opportunity, excitement or ambiguity, by thinking about and discussing our relationships to endings we can develop a healthier way forward when faced with this summer’s farewells.

Chana Hughes is a family therapist and mental health practitioner who works with families and individuals. She is also the rebbetzim of Radlett United Synagogue. Please send her your questions at

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