Learning to Leave a Place Well
My oldest daughter is forcing me to face the fact that she is leaving home. Seven years ago when we moved overseas, she was given a simple tool to help her prepare to leave one place and move to another. Now as she finishes her life in Spain and prepares for university in the U.S., she has dug the tool out for us to do together.
I’m not particularly fond of goodbyes, even though I know how important they are. When I moved overseas, I was great about all my goodbyes except with my mom and sisters. I said, “Let’s just pretend I’m going on a vacation in the Mediterranean.” It worked for about a year until the honeymoon of our new life faded and the grief refused to be ignored any longer.
Learning to leave a place well is a skill that will be used repeatedly in your life. We all experience transitions that require endings: leaving a long-term job, moving to a new city or country, graduating from high school or college, moving from one school to another, or even watching someone decline from aging or a terminal illness— your mind and heart NEED good closure before you can move towards life on the other side.
The late David Pollock, an American sociologist, spent the majority of his life working with Third Culture Kid’s (TCKs). TCK’s are children who have been spent a significant part of their childhood in a culture different from the one that matches their passport or nationality. The ex-patriate community (i.e. military stationed abroad, humanitarian workers, immigrants, missionaries, and corporate people) are an incredibly transient population— as a result, many Third Culture Kids are constantly saying goodbye to friends, schools, and cultures. By the time these kids reach adulthood, they have layers of grief connected to the revolving door of relationships.
Pollock found that children had greater resilience and health when they learned how to say goodbye well. He developed an easily remembered acronym to help called the RAFT… one that is easily applied to many forms of transition. This is a simple, but powerful tool for adults and children to help think through how to bring closure to a season of your life.
With whom do you need to reconcile? Do I have any unfinished business with someone? Is there someone with whom you have tension? Conflicts, small and large, are expected in any form of community life. Maybe you had a nemesis at work, a friend who betrayed you, or a team leader who really didn’t lead well. This is the time to do a little relational clean up.
Reconciling doesn’t have to be an hour long joint therapy session rehashing what happened. For some relationships, your interaction can be as simple as saying, “I know we’ve had our differences while working together. I’m sorry for my part and I want to say goodbye.” For deeper relationships, you might want a few minutes to sit down and to apologize more specifically for your part in the conflict.
If you were the one who was wronged, reconciliation doesn’t mean you condone their behavior. You can acknowledge (either with the person directly or on your own) that there was a breech, assume responsibility for your part, forgive and move on. If you are both still figuring out what went wrong, just say, “I know we’ll both have more clarity as we get distance from this time, but I want you to know I’m sorry we’ve hurt each other.” Regardless of their response, you have made an attempt to bring closure.
A – AFFIRM
Who would you to thank and affirm for their presence in your life? Think of friends, teachers, neighbors, the librarian, coaches, co-workers, janitors, street vendors, classmates, secretaries, workout buddies. When people have made an imprint on your life, take time to them how much you have appreciated them. Verbally thank them. Write a note. Take them to coffee. Give them a hug. Rehash some of your favorite memories with them. Give a small token of appreciation.
To whom do you want to say goodbye? When we just slip out the door, so to speak, without saying goodbye to people, there is a loop that has not been closed. Whether we acknowledge it or not, too many unclosed loops makes for some gaps internally. Think of saying farewell in these categories:
People…. This list will probably have an overlap with your ‘affirm’ list, so you can affirm and say goodbye at the same time.
- Friends and colleagues… Host a party to celebrate your friendship. Go out for a nice dinner. Give a small token of your friendship. Frame a special picture. Write a letter. Toast to your friendship one last time together.
- People from your Community Life… Don’t forget the people from your everyday life: the guy you see walking the dog every day, the woman from the local cafe who always waits on you, the guy who checks your ID when you come in, the secretary who always greets you. Believe it or not, these are some of the faces that will come to mind when you look back on that season.
Possessions… If your belongings hold sentimental value for you, but you are limited on what you can take, the sort and purge process will be difficult. Have a friend come to help you sort. Emotional and physical fatigue can sometimes paralyze us in small decisions.
Our friend who came to help the girls, had them draw a box and list four special things inside the box that they would take with them – no matter what. This gives your children a small sense of control and helps you to release them when they choose something that seems so silly to take with you.
Places… Physically going to the places of significance will evoke memories and gratitude that help in releasing this season of your life. My daughter has us traipsing all over southern Spain to revisit the towns, churches, beaches and lakes that hold dear memories for her. Take a walk down your street one last time. Go to your favorite hangout. Visit your school, church, or the park and say a prayer of gratitude together for what that place has meant to you. Take a last hike on your favorite trail. Geography deeply imprints on our souls especially during our formative years… celebrate the beauty of your life in that place.
Pets… Sometimes when you are moving you cannot take your pet with you. As tempting as it is to sneak the dog off to a new home, don’t. Kids need a chance to say goodbye. Set a date in the near future and let them know when your animal is going to his/her new home. Yes, there will be tears and angst up until the day arrives, but that’s okay. Be sad with your child. Agree with them that it IS hard and you wish you didn’t have to leave your animal either (but you do). Talk about favorite memories. As hard as it is to intentionally address the sadness in leaving, you are teaching them HOW to grieve and transition well.
Palette… (don’t forget the FOOD!) Tastes and smells are a huge part of our life experience. What are some of your favorite restaurants or local foods you would like to eat for the last time? We repeatedly ordered our favorite nachos at the local Mexican restaurant “one last time!” before we moved.
T – THINK DESTINATION
Most transitions hold excitement for what will come in our next stage. What are you looking forward to? What will be different? What might you gain by moving? Spend some time researching your next phase. Ask questions of others. Visit ahead of time to help build anticipation. Have a special treat awaiting you at your next destination.
While it may be tempting to either jump ahead to the new or to refuse to let go of the old, think of this as a season where you have a foot in your old life, and a foot heading towards the new. Leaning more heavily one direction or the other will make your transition more turbulent.
Don’t be overwhelmed by this list. A simple RAFT is better than not doing anything. These goodbyes ideally can be stretched over your last few months in order to fit them in, but you can also designate a day or two to cluster many of the goodbyes together. The important thing is to be intentional in saying goodbye to your old life before moving on to the new. (Incidentally, sometimes we are not able to leave well for circumstances out of our control. More on how to bring closure to forced endings in a future post.)
Today we leave for our last family trip with our daughter at home– her bucket list was to visit Versailles before she left home (perks of living in Europe!). As hard as it is to face that our oldest may never live full-time under our roof again, the intentionality of sitting down with her RAFT has heightened our awareness of how precious each day is before she goes. I’m grateful she’s learned how to finish well and forcing me to do it with her.