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The saddest word

When saying goodbye brings tears

The saddest word

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I don’t envy others their big houses or frequent vacations (or not much!). Here’s what I do envy: Those grandparents who get to visit their grandkids more than twice a year. Living less than a day’s drive—say, three hours—away from grown children seems ideal. It’s close enough to join them for school plays and tournament games and sleepovers, but not near enough to be an imposition (or a convenience?). I’ll have to say, though, if my offspring wanted to move down the road I wouldn’t object. Instead, they both live on opposite sides of the country. Better than opposite sides of the globe, but getting together is like the logistics for a summit meeting with all the scheduling arrangements, lodging, and flight plans. 

Even so, my life as a grandma is nothing to complain about, except when it’s time to say goodbye.

Goodbye is supposed to be one of the saddest words in the English language. Not necessarily so, at the end of an enjoyable evening with friends or an interminable phone conversation with the IRS (once you finally get an agent on the line). But when clinging to little ones who will grow 2 inches before you see them again ... that’s sad. Or when you know your mother will never again wake up in this world. Or when you didn’t get to say it, but it occupies the space where your dad used to be.

The Bible records some sorrowful goodbyes. David and Jonathan wept when they parted in the field, not knowing if they would lay eyes on each other again. Paul took a tearful farewell of the Ephesian elders after assuring them it was final. One of the longest goodbyes ever recorded is John 14-17: Jesus’ farewell to His disciples. He didn’t say the word, but “I go” hangs over almost every section: “I am going,” “I go to prepare a place,” “I am leaving,” “a little while and you will see me no more.” 

Like many of His other hard sayings, this one went over their heads. Even if they had understood what He meant, it would have seemed so wrong. “Don’t You love us, Jesus? Why won’t You stay with us?” In the same way it seems not just sad, but wrong, to part from a grandchild who just planted a wet kiss on your cheek. We were made for relationship, but every hello will end with a goodbye. Is this the way it’s supposed to be?

“It is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus said, “for if I do not, the Helper will not come to you.” We know He was speaking of the Holy Spirit, but like His closest disciples, we don’t at first understand the reasoning. What about this: The work of Christ means nothing to us until the Spirit breathes it into our hearts. The love of the Father can’t penetrate until the Spirit opens up the eternal Trinitarian bond and pulls us inside. That’s why Jesus can say, “Abide in me,” even while speaking of going away. He does not dismiss the pain of goodbye, but He redeems it. “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.”

That applies not just to the bittersweet farewells after a long and well-lived life, but also to the fraught ones, where love was not pure or regret pierces our sorrow. A 54-year-old friend dying of cancer knows she will meet her Lord but still longs to see her grandchildren grow up. Why so soon? A father lamenting his son’s suicide tortures himself over what he could have said—why so hasty? A daughter caring for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother feels guilty for wondering, Why so long? A wife who could have loved better sees her dying husband’s face turned away: Why no forgiveness? 

“Let not your hearts be troubled.” Fraught farewells are never the end, much less the temporary ones at the airport departure lane. Christ kicked out the back wall of goodbye and cleared a path to a better hello. Let’s follow Him.