I always loved the Beatles song “Hello, Goodbye,” but I never really understood the lyrics, particularly when they sang “you say goodbye and I say hello.” But during dinner with a dear friend last week, I think I finally got it.
Because of his age, he had been pressured to retire from a career he had pursued for many years. It was a terrific creative and intellectual outlet for him and a source of pride and identity. He looked for similar jobs, but was unsuccessful.
Resigned that he would never again work in his chosen profession, he feels angry, confused and frightened. All this is understandable. After all, he thinks he lost his identity.
Anger is the voice of injustice. Forced retirement is unjust, as are many of the losses associated with aging.
Then grief follows anger. Author Stephen Levine described grief as “the rope burns that are left behind when what we clutch so tightly is pulled from our grasp.”
After a lifetime of seeing oneself in a certain role, saying goodbye to that identity can be excruciating. It can feel like the phantom pain of an amputee. A person hurts where the limb used to be, just as my friend aches where his identity once flourished. But just or not, if we don’t say goodbye to what we had yesterday, we stay stuck.
I recently heard from a man who called himself Bill. He had been the chief executive officer of a large nonprofit when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and deteriorated quickly from the degenerative nerve disease. He went into great detail about what he had done with his life and what he had lost.
I said to him that he seemed very clear about who he had been, but I wondered who he was now. He wrote back saying that although he didn’t have the answer, that was the right question and he would write again when he had an answer.
First say goodbye, then say hello.
Several years ago, I was working with a woman in her mid-50s. Her aging mother was deteriorating and she decided to take her in.
Their relationship, she described, was always somewhat shallow. They got along all right, but never really understood each other. She was worried how this would work out.
Sure enough, when her mother moved in, my patient got more and more stressed. Mother was too frail to come to the office, so I went to her house and met with them. Mother seemed consumed with bitterness and guilt. “I sit here while my daughter takes care of me and I feel worthless.”
Her daughter protested that she didn’t mind the extra work, but it didn’t make her mother feel better.
I spent a great deal of time talking with the mother about her life. She talked about her career accomplishments and her pride in her children. She also talked about how hard it was to lose friends at this age and how frustrated she was that she couldn’t function as she had in the past.
We all felt great sadness as this 80-year-old woman said tearfully, “I will miss those days terribly.” The daughter no longer tried to reassure her mother. She just sat with her and held her hand and shared her sadness – perhaps for the first time.
When I asked what kind of relationship she had always wanted with her mother, she quickly said that she always wanted just to be able to sit and talk, to learn about each other’s life and have genuine intimacy and friendship.
By the way, I did receive an e-mail from Bill six months after my provocative question. He told me that he still suffered terribly with MS. He said he no longer felt like a CEO, but he did feel more like Bill.
Sometimes we must say goodbye before we say hello.