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Commentary-Needing Help To Say Goodbye



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Needing Help To Say Goodbye

(Editor’s note:  This column was first published in The Bee in the summer of 1999. It was written by Jeff White, a former Bee reporter who died this week at the age of 32 in the fullness of life and success as a journalist working in Europe.  His thoughtful comments about the passing of a friend seemed especially appropriate this week, so we have decided to share it again with our readers.)

By Jeff White

The sun draped a soft pink curtain across the dusky sky as I made my way to the cemetery. She had been laid to rest one week before, and I felt that I hadn’t said a proper goodbye.

The days leading to my friend’s burial had been blurred by the immediacy of events: the news, the sorrowful reunion of friends, the wake, the ceremony. Answers were fickle and hard to come by.

Where art thou gone.

Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,

This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate.

Shelley posed the question in the church that Monday morning, and as I sat in the wooden pew, the sorrow of my friend’s family was palpable. I watched heads shaking, relatives squeezing hands tightly and my friends embracing, soaking each other’s collars with tears.

Socrates could never understand why people feared death. Upon his imprisonment, a friend of his presented him with the opportunity for escape. It would be a chance to avoid an inevitable death, his friend explained. Socrates said that he wasn’t sure why everyone wanted to avoid death; such fear presupposed that people actually knew what came after life, which they didn’t. After all, Socrates reasoned, the afterlife could be so wonderful as to render life a mere waiting room.

Sitting in that crowded church, I didn’t translate the sorrow of the congregation as a fear of death’s uncertainty, but rather as a fear of the finality of goodbye.

I think the act of saying goodbye goes against the basic human instinct to hold on. To capture essences, to savor wonderful smells and sights, to treasure beautiful people, these, for the most part, are innate in all of us, because they all bring with them a level of happiness from which we do not want to part.

So hard is the act of truly saying goodbye that it often requires a fraternity of love to perform it. The family and friends present in that church all needed each other to cast a final, tearful farewell to a life cut tragically short. And I needed all of them.

I needed them because my friend was a beautiful person; she was the essence of friendship to so many who were lucky enough to call her their friend. Friends that had been blown far away from home by life’s jet streams reunited to savor her jokes, her adventures, her laughter.

But perhaps goodbyes are aided by something in addition to the comforting sounds of friends and family: time. I took part in the departing benedictions at the burial, but for some reason, I didn’t want to say my personal, final goodbye that late morning.

I wanted some distance from those hectic, confusing days. I wanted time to think. And as my truck crunched nosily over the dirt road of the cemetery, I thought I also needed some space, to say goodbye alone.

But I wasn’t alone at the cemetery that night. I recognized a man tending to a grave site some distance away. I knew who he was, and, like my friend’s parents, I knew that he too had just recently lost a child. Like my friend, his son was young, too young and had such great potential to meet all of life’s incongruities with intelligence and kindness.

I watched as he made several trips down the dirt road to a pump, where he filled a teal green pail with water. He wanted to keep the flowers and grass of his son’s resting place lush.

Sitting down on what looked like a weathered, tan jacket in front of the grave, he lit a candle, which glowed stronger as the day’s light waned.

At that moment, I was sitting in front of my friend’s grave, he was sitting in front of his son’s, and we were both trying to say goodbye. Our thoughts were not the same, I knew that. But in a strange, almost visceral way, we were helping each other. I would glance at him, and he occasionally returned my look. I needed someone after all. I remembered by friend and the times we shared in large groups at parties and in bars. I laughed at how sarcastic she used to get with me, usually because I was egging her on with stupid statements and preposterous propositions. I also recalled how I liked just to listen to her talk to the other friends that usually crowded around the table at whatever restaurant we occupied at the time. There was just something about her voice.

I also thought about the different ways she affected all my other friends’ lives. I thanked her for the square she occupied in the best quilt of friendship anyone could ask for. I know my friends agree, without her the quilt has a hole that can’t be patched.

I also marveled at how my friends rallied to each other as the news of her death spread. This bond formed an umbrella of safety under which we could all take comfort, knowing that we were all there for each other.

In the dim light I watched an ant scurry across a white ribbon, up to flowers that had become dry from the week’s sun. I found a certain peace in being able to think about her, remember her, and say goodbye.

As I drove slowly away, I was thankful that a goodbye necessitated help. I wondered, how often do we take for granted the difficulty of saying goodbye? How many times do we all push people away when trials and sorrow overtake our lives? It is those very times when we should look up and find those who are experiencing what we are experiencing.

I had found comfort in both familiar and old faces, friends who bridged distances and came together. I had found a profound hope in a father tending to his son with a love that transcended the cemetery. I had come to hear Shelley again, answering the question he had posed a week earlier.

He is the portion of the loveliness

Which once he made more lovely.

Shelley wasn’t talking about my friend, but saying a final goodbye to one of his, John Keats. But nevertheless, I heard his words: my friend would always be found within the world’s beauty. My friend’s light would grow stronger the darker the evening became.

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