Celebrating departures: How to say goodbye

Written by Wilson Ng
5 mins read
Published on Feb 3, 2023

TLDR: We have all said goodbyes at some point in our lives. Does it always have to be a sad occasion? How can we better deal with goodbyes? Wilson reflects on his departure from loved ones and friends.

Departure (4 Oct, 08:00am)

Knowing that I only had one month left, it felt like there were so many people to meet and so many things to do. The outpouring of love and kindness from the people in my life gave me an indication of the quality of relationships that I have forged in my time here.

However, I could not help but wonder about the intentions behind these gestures. 

I felt a tinge of guilt for thinking that all these were more for them than for me, that these helped them to make peace with my eventual departure.

I struggled with myself, “My friends and family seemed to assume that they have a right to ask for whatever time I have remaining. Yet, it also feels wrong to tell people that I want more time for myself and to reject their kindness. Also, how can I make assumptions about their intentions? That reflects more about how I view the loved ones in my life.”

As the end drew near, I thought I would feel sad, nervous or even excited. Interestingly, it just felt like the end of every other day that I have lived so far. I guess maybe I have prepared enough and that the end just feels like it would come sooner or later anyway.

Or maybe it is because I’m still on the way to the other side and that it will all start to sink in once I arrive.

At this point, I want to take the chance to thank the people in my life for loving me, helping me to learn and grow and eventually, letting me go with your heartfelt well-wishes. I think that is one of the greatest gifts I have received. Thank you all.

~The End~

Oh, you are still here? After reading the previous few paragraphs, you may be thinking, “This Wilson has gone crazy already. Say until like he’s dying like that.” 

Or maybe you are texting me now to scold me for scaring you. Hehe, please forgive me for deciding on such a dramatic and possibly triggering way to start the article. 😅

To set the record straight, I left Singapore for Japan to study and do research for the next 1.5 years. I do hope that the opening captured how I felt about the similarities between going overseas for a long period and dying.

However, if you are still cross with me (and understandably so 😛), I hope the rest of the article explains well the thought process of this weirdo here.

There are many ways in which we may leave this world. It could be sudden, leaving you shocked like a deer in headlights. Or you would have an idea of the end drawing near, giving you some time to make preparations. 

I was reminded of a quote by Paul Kalanithi in his book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, which described his journey of facing his mortality as a surgeon himself: “I began to realise that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I know knew it acutely.”

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I feel blessed to be given the chance to say my goodbyes and to feel the love and care of my loved ones. It made me think about how I would ideally like to leave this world and how I could live my life so that when my time is up, it would reduce the suffering for myself and the people around me.

Celebrating Departures

While I mentioned the similarities between going overseas and dying, I noticed a major difference. 

When it comes to going overseas, it is usually celebrated. However, when it comes to dying, it is mostly grieved. You may retort, “Of course lah! Dying is a permanent goodbye leh. You go overseas we can still visit each other what.”

Also, people also tend to celebrate deaths if the deceased had lived till a “ripe” old age. Even the choice of words betrays our value judgments on the importance of living a long life.

To me, this often-quoted phrase captures my attitude succinctly: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” I think it may be also because I believe that I would not be able to live a long life due to my extreme levels of carelessness. 

With all these said, I am not proposing that we ignore the fact that others may be grieving over departures in their lives and therefore, trivialise the suffering that they are experiencing.

It is perfectly normal to experience sadness and grief as a response to loss in our lives, be it due to death or otherwise. However, we can also choose to respond to those by celebrating the life of the deceased.

For me, I had the idea that at my funeral, guests would be invited to note down a favourite memory that they shared with me. They can then probably laugh together at the silly things that happened in my life, including falling into the swan lake at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and getting into a tussle with monkeys at the Penang Botanic Gardens.

Preparing for Departures

How should we then prepare for departures, be it our own or others’, going overseas or dying? Instead of considering the plethora of things that one can prepare to make the departure easier, I think it would be good to focus on something manageable that we can do regularly.

The Buddha encouraged his disciples to use separation and death as part of 5 themes to reflect upon to support them in their spiritual practice. 

“Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon

… by a householder or one gone forth.

1. ‘I am subject to old age; I am not exempt from old age.’

2. ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’

3. ‘I am subject to death; I am not exempt from death.’

4. ‘I must be parted and separated from everyone and everything dear and agreeable to me.’

5. ‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’”

AN 5.57: Upajjhatthana Sutta

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Initially, you may find it weird or even uncomfortable when conducting this set of reflections and that is perfectly normal since we do not usually consider our mortality as we go about our everyday lives. However, I do hope this practice can support you in living a good life, so that when the time comes to leave, for whatever reasons and in whatever ways, you are ready for it.

Summary

We often go through life without thinking about departures of different natures, possibly even avoiding the idea of departures.

The grief that we associate with departures arises easily in our minds and while that is perfectly natural, we can approach departures in a different light.

We can choose to celebrate the moments we shared with the person who is leaving while taking the chance to reflect upon separation and death to support us in our spiritual practice.


Wise Steps:

  • Reminding ourselves of the 5 themes that Buddha taught us help us not to take life for granted
  • Grief is perfectly natural; what matters is our response to it. finding the right community to support you through it is most crucial!

Author: Wilson Ng

A quirky combination of contradictions, or more commonly known as a weirdo. Laughs louder than the mating calls of the 'uwu' birds. Fun in moderate doses.

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