You have likely witnessed friends or families saying goodbye to one another dozens of times. Even if the trip is short, emotions can run deep because we never know for certain what will happen. We always face the possibility of an accident, sudden illness, or some other catastrophe. But most of the time, we part with the simple words, “I love you,” “I’ll be OK,” or “I’ll see you when I get back.”
Under certain circumstances, of course, we sense the stakes are higher. We hug a little harder. We assure each other of our love a little more energetically. And we pray for safety a little more fervently.
What is the fundamental source of our anxiety? The possibility of death. We fear our loved one’s life may end and we will never see that person again. Suddenly saying goodbye takes on a whole new and deeper meaning.
The fact is we will all die. We may not know how it will happen or when it will happen. But we know it will happen. And we know why—because death is a result of sin in the world. When God said to Adam and Eve, “On the day you eat of this tree you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), he was also talking about our death. Christ, of course, conquered death in the sense that it’s no longer our final condition (Rom. 6:8-10). There is life eternal after death, but we must all pass through that valley.
So how do we say goodbye for the final time? How do we at least get ready to do that?
Talk About It
First, you need to be willing to say goodbye. We need to acknowledge that we will not live forever. The Bible is clear that our days on earth are numbered, that we are like grass that springs up and then withers and fades (Ps. 90:4-5). This means, of course, that we should talk about death. Generally everything we anticipate we discuss together—the visit of a family member, an upcoming concert, a long-planned vacation, or a pending operation. Likewise, we know that death will come. Talking about death helps us accept the reality of it and become better prepared for our final goodbye.
When you head off on a long trip, you probably leave all your regular affairs in order. You arrange for pet care, stop the mail and newspaper, and have someone watch your property. You know that some advance planning is essential for avoiding anxiety in saying goodbye to your home and regular routine. So it is with your own eventual death. What are some of the basic preparations we should attend to?
- Financial and legal plans. Make your financial status obvious by writing down a list of your assets and debits, including detailed information about where the documents and/or accounts can be found. Everyone should have a last will and testament. Attach to it a list of specific items you wish certain people to receive upon your death. Many people also need to have a living trust or other financial and legal instruments to make the transition of your estate as efficient as possible, especially if you have many assets and/or want them distributed over a period of time.
- Medical and health care decisions. Many hospitals now routinely ask for an “advance directive” or Power of Attorney for Health Care. This is an official document for when your health becomes critical. It allows you to detail the type of care you wish to receive and under what conditions. An advocate of your choosing will make medical decisions for you when you cannot.
- Funeral plans. Funeral homes encourage you to make plans in advance, either at no cost to you or prepaid to guarantee the price. They will talk with you and your family about the type of funeral events and what means of disposition you want (burial or cremation), as well as many of the other choices associated with your death and funeral.
The Bible frequently instructs us to forgive one another in Christ, even as we have been forgiven by him (Col. 3:13). Yet many times we delay forgiveness. We wait for the other person to make the first move. Or we are still too upset, convinced there is no way we could ever forgive. And then we bear that heavy burden of disharmony throughout our lifetime.
There are a few significant things to know about forgiveness:
- God did not wait for us to make the first move. God initiated forgiveness in Christ and freely forgave us through his grace (Eph. 2:4-5). This is our model for forgiveness. Be like Christ—initiate forgiveness because of the grace you have received in him.
- Forgiveness is not a pardon for the offense or an act of condoning it. Forgiveness is merely saying, “I won’t hold this against you” just as God no longer holds an account of our sins and failures (Isa.1:18).
- Forgiveness cannot restore a relationship to its original state. Something happened that wounded and scarred the relationship. We cannot act “as if it never happened.” We can forgive and reframe the situation, but in many cases the relationship cannot be rebuilt to the same degree of trust or intimacy as before. On the other hand, some restored relationships are deeper and stronger than before as a result of the conflict and forgiveness process.
- Forgiving someone doesn’t mean the other person has to forgive us. Christian forgiveness does not depend on the other party. It depends only on the degree to which you accept and live in Christ’s forgiveness for you.
As you plan for your death, reconcile wounded relationships by working through your feelings and then forgiving the other person and yourself. Then live in the fullness of Christ’s forgiveness.
Pass on a Blessing
Patriarchs in the Old Testament passed on a blessing as they approached the end of their lives. So consider passing along the blessings of God in a similar fashion.
This can be done by preparing in advance something presently called an “ethical will.” Essentially, an ethical will is any means (for example, letters, video, audio tape) you use to pass along your own values and beliefs and give expression to your emotions and sense of spiritual blessings.
You also can pass on a blessing in person as the time of your death draws near (if that is known). Arrange to see the people with whom you have been close and talk to each other from the heart. This creates significant memories and a form of closure for all involved.
As you consider expressing your love, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Often those who wait for the “right time” find it passes by without notice and suddenly communication with the dying person is no longer possible.
- Talk about your relationship together—not just about superficial things. Talk about what you liked about the person. Reconcile differences. Talk about each other’s faith.
- Let your loved one know that he or she may die when ready to, that he or she doesn’t have to stay alive for your sake. Yet reassure your loved one that you don’t wish for his or her death, that when that happens you will be very sad and will grieve. But express assurance that eventually you will be OK again. Letting go can be difficult and painful, but it’s also helpful for both sides. When people are dying they become more focused on preparing for their final journey than on what is happening in the family. If the family does not understand that, they may feel hurt by what they perceive as rejection.
We know (at least in our heads) that we will all die sometime, though our society avoids talking about it. We also know that when we die, we will leave people whom we love behind. They will grieve our death. Goodbyes are important. Consider how you will say your final farewell to those who have journeyed through life with you.
About the Authors
Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge, R.N., Ed.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Robert C. DeVries, D.Min., Ph.D., is emeritus professor of church education at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids. They are married to each other and are co-authors of Living Fully in the Shadow of Death: Assurance and Guidance to Finish Well as well as three other books on grief.