Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

The Longest Goodbye

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“You were fighting every day

So hard to hide the pain.

I know you never said goodbye,

I had so much left to say.

One last song,

given to an Angel’s son.”

-Sevendust, Angel’s Son

I never said goodbye. It’s taken me 14 years to realize it. I remember so much and so little about that night. Certain memories stand out like a bad dream on a loop that I can’t pause. I remember sounds. The shrill ringing of a phone. The sound of my breath. Raspy. Shallow. The inexplicable calm in my mother’s voice. “You need to come.” I stayed calm until I hung up the phone. Then I lost it. I didn’t want to go. I can’t do it. My hands trembled uncontrollably as I pulled on my pants. I was frantic and stalling at the same time. I want him to save me. Tell me I don’t have to go. Tell me it’s all some sick cruel joke. He took my hands and steadied them. “You have to go. You have to do this.” I nod quickly, more times than necessary. I manage to find the keys. “Are you ok?” he calls out. I nod one more time and shut the door behind me. If I talk, if I hesitate, I’ll break. I must move forward or I’ll crumble. I remember the sound of the keys. Clanging like a frantic jester in my trembling hand.  My teeth chattering. Nerves had taken over my body and I was shaking. I remember the audacity of a beautiful night. Warm. Breezy. In defiant contrast with everything I was feeling. I don’t remember driving there. Mom met me on the sidewalk to the house. She’d come out to give me the details. To let me know what I was going to see. Dear god, I just saw him two days ago, what could have changed in 48 hours? I tried to follow her into the house, but collapsed into her arms overcome with fear and anguish. I collapsed. I knew I was supposed to be strong for her, but I couldn’t help myself. I was ashamed, but I succumbed. I let her guide my limp body into the house. She sat me on a chair and comforted me. She comforted me. I knew this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, but I felt more out of control than I’d ever felt in my life. When I finally calmed down and the sobbing subsided I went into the living room to see my brother. He was asleep, but not asleep. I realized quickly that the last time I saw him, only 2 days ago, was the last time I would have a coherent conversation with him. And what did we talk about? I don’t even know. Probably some bullshit. Probably me trying to be stupid and make him laugh. Did he know? While I was rattling off stupid one-liners, did he know that it would be the last time we would really talk? Was he annoyed with my oblivious idiocy? Did he want to scream at me or shake me and tell me to shut the fuck up? To be real? Did he want me to say goodbye? I’ll never know. I’ll never know if my self preservation robbed him of a real moment, of getting to say goodbye to me. He was always so protective, he wouldn’t want to upset me. He would have put my needs ahead of his. He would have hidden his disappointment. And now I’ll never know. That night passed like a dream. I remember some things so clearly. I remember feeling the most desperate panic I’ve ever felt in my life. I wanted to leave, to escape. My mind was screaming inside my head while the world moved in slow motion. I remember disbelief. I had been so hopeful. So optimistic. And still we were here. I remember worrying that he was suffering. I was so intensely scared that he was suffering and couldn’t tell us. I remember feeling guilt. Guilt because I laid on the floor and closed my eyes and drifted in and out of a tortured sleep. Guilt because my sister sat by his side the entire night. Not budging. Guilt because she was having to be the strong one and I reverted to a scared little girl who just wanted to shove her thumb in her mouth and rock back and forth. The details of that night and the next morning are sacred. We were all there. My parents. My sister. Her husband. Me. Joe. We all were there for a moment that is indescribable. It was beautiful and wrenching and I’ll never be able to put into words watching someone precious die. I think we all knew it – that moment. And I still didn’t say goodbye. I held up  afterwards. We all did. The house felt obscenely quiet. We were all in shock. I went through the motions. We all did. I still had wedding stuff to attend to. I still had to plan for the happiest day of my life that was to follow, only ten short days, after the worst day of my life. Planning seemed so superficial. So stupid. I didn’t care. I didn’t want a wedding anymore. I would have been happy with a signature on a piece of paper to make it legal. But my family wouldn’t have it. They convinced me that the wedding had to happen. I had to do it because it’s what he would have wanted. He knew, even before I really knew. He knew that Joe was the one. He told my parents, after I’d brought Joe home the first time,”That’s the guy she’s going to marry” So of course I had to keep on keeping on with the wedding. He would have been pissed if I’d canceled the biggest party of my life. But now, all these years later, I realize I never said goodbye. All these years later, when that realization hit me, it was like someone had cut my legs off. How did I sit by his side for hours upon hours, knowing it was goodbye, yet never saying goodbye? Was it selfishness? Was it denial? I have been told I should write a goodbye letter. The mere mention of that left me open and seething. A wound, this particular wound, that I didn’t even know was there for fourteen years, was now bleeding. I operate between two worlds. In one world I go about my business and tell myself that I’ll see him soon. He’s traveling. He’s busy. That’s why I miss him. This is feasible. The other world is on a more spiritual level. I know he’s gone, but I know he’s here. He’s with me. I know he was with me when I walked down the aisle on my wedding day. I can tell you the exact moment he showed up during the births of my three children. There have been times, random times, when I hear his favorite song and I know he’s with me. I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I have felt him here with me when I’m writing about him. I still don’t want to say goodbye. But maybe I’m still being scared and selfish. Maybe saying goodbye is the right thing to do. So here goes… How do you say goodbye to someone when you don’t want to let them go? I don’t want you to go. I know I can’t put a cap on this, I can’t fold this up and put it in a box. But I do want you to know some things. Your life was a gift to us all. You brought laughter. You brought art. You brought joy. You made us, this hodgepodge family a real family. You gave each of us a part of you. Your smile that could light up a room. Your laughter that could soften the hardest of souls. Your humor that could cut through any moment and bring sweet relief of laughter. You could make me laugh when I didn’t want to laugh. And is there really anything better than that? Is there any greater gift? I want to hold on so tight, my jaw clenched in tight determination, but I also need to release. I am not going to tell you goodbye. I just don’t believe in it. But I will tell you all the things I wanted to say so badly. All the things I kept to myself because you weren’t giving up and I didn’t want you to think I was too. I want to tell you that I love you. I want to tell you how much better you made my life, everyone’s life. I can’t imagine a world without you, so I just imagine you’re still in it. I miss you. I miss you so bad I feel it in every bone. I hope you’re good. I hope you are happy. But I’m not saying goodbye. I’ll never say goodbye.


37 Responses

  1. The audacity of a beautiful night. That lines gave me chills. As always, you write with such grace. It seems to me you don’t need to say goodbye….because your brother is very much with you and alive in your mind and heart.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that Kelly. I do feel like he’s with me. Especially at crucial moments. Thank you for always offering kind and encouraging words. It really means so much.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that. I just went there and read it. She told some chilling stories in a short piece. Imagine not telling someone their diagnosis! How awful! I’m going to click back over and comment now. (And I’m not a big believer in coincidences, some things happen for a reason! I sense you are of like mind…)

  2. Oh my goodness this is stunning. I hardly ever cry, especially at things I read, but I shed a few tears at this. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that. Although I’m sorry it made you cry. I was in a very emotional place when I wrote it. It’s always hard to decide if I’m going to share something like this and put it out there, but I tell myself if I don’t put it all out there, what’s the point? Still, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a lot of nerves when I hit publish. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

      1. The tears were peaceful, and sometimes we need to shed a few. I definitely understand the nerves with hitting publish, but it really paid off with this post.

  3. I don’t think you should ever have to say goodbye until you’re ready. There is an objective reality about departures, but what feels real is what lives in your head. Keep it as long as you need it, says I.

    1. Wow. Thank you so much for that. I don’t think I can ever say goodbye and what you just said really helps to give me some peace about that. I am touched that you would take the time to read and to say that. I will carry this comment with me and remember it for a long time… thank you.

  4. Gretchen, this is so beautifully written and so heart-wrenching to read. If not good-bye, then hello to his soul soothing you when you need it most.

    1. Karin, thank you so much. What a beautiful sentiment. I love that. And actually, that’s what I think I’ve been feeling for a long time. I know that something carried me/propelled me down the aisle on my wedding day (he was supposed to give me away). Thank you for putting such beautiful words to something that I feel very connected to. You’re so sweet to come here and read my stuff. It really means a lot to me!

  5. Lovely and so emotionally written. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I do not think it is random when he is with you. The song or smell or feeling. I think it is well placed. Embrace those moments and feel comfort in knowing that he will be with you as you continue through your life here on Earth.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that. It really does help. I’ve struggled with this over the last few months (once it hit me that I never really said goodbye). I embrace those moments and relish them and soak them up. It’s the closest I get to being with him. And I do believe his spirit is with me in those moments. Thank you for coming here and for letting me know your thoughts…

    1. Thank you so much. Writing it felt like purging. And that is in it’s own way comforting. I feel like I probably needed that release. And people like you taking the time to read and to comment has been very comforting. Thank you for that.

  6. Heart Squeeze. Oh my heart….Gretchen. This was beautifully written, which is so tough when it’s something we’re feeling so deeply. I think your logical mind knew there as no reason for a good-bye when he’s still with you on so many levels. You loved him. He knows it. That’s all that matters. Love. That’s it. *hugs*

    1. Thank you Beth. I wrote this late one night a few weeks ago, pretty much sobbing the whole time. I have a feeling you’ve been there before…

      He definitely knew that I loved him, I tried to honor his way of doing things with his illness in general. If he wanted to talk about it we did. If he didn’t want to discuss it we just had fun like Cancer wasn’t even a thing. I think in those final days I was trying to follow his lead. But I’ve always questioned that. Honestly, this was so scary to post. I didn’t know if I would when I wrote it. But I’m glad I did, the supportive comments have been so healing. I didn’t expect that. And thank you for always being so sweet and supportive. *hugs* right back atcha.

  7. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been to write, to live, to experience. I don’t know you…yet. This is my first post of yours to read. Wow! I can see why you come so highly recommended.

    A dear friend of mine recently lost her 18 year old son tragically in a car accident. There was no time for goodbyes. He died instantly. She’s having such a hard time with that fact. When she’s ready, and she’s no where close, I will share this post with her. I think your words might bring her comfort if that’s even possible.

    Thank you for sharing this story. it reminds me that we don’t always have to say “goodbye.”

    1. Thank you. My heart aches for your friend. I have always felt that we were “lucky” because we knew. As awful as that sounds. Even though I didn’t say goodbye, we knew for a long time that time was limited. We got to spend a lot of time together during the 18 months that he went through treatment. And that is something I have always clung to for comfort. I can’t imagine losing someone (especially a child… ) so suddenly and unexpectedly. I hope she eventually can find some kind of peace with it. I’ve watched my parents come to a place where they can experience joy again, so I know it’s possible, even after losing a child.

      There’s a group where we live called KInderMourn and it’s for parents who’ve lost a child. It’s a support group and they have grief counseling. I know other cities have KinderMourn chapters. I know it really saved my parents. Just thought I’d mention it to you in case you have something like that where you live.

      Thank you so much for stopping by to read and leaving me a comment. I have been a fan of your blog for some time now and I’m honored that you would come here and leave such kind words!

      1. I am going to check out KinderMourn today. Thank so much for the referral, and wow…I’m completely humbled that you are honored by anything that I do. I will be back for sure. Your writing, especially here in this post, is so powerful and beautiful.

  8. I, too, was recommended here very recently, and this was a heart-rending but also wonderful place to start. I’m so sorry you lost your brother and that you carried this wound you didn’t realise. I’m glad you still feel him with you – that’s wonderful.

    I’m so glad you wrote this.

    Thank you. For permission NOT to say goodbye.

    1. Thank you so much. I am so immensely grateful for those moments when I feel him with me. Or when I have a vivid dream about him. And it means so much to me that you feel I’ve given permission to not say goodbye. I didn’t intend that to be the message, I really just wrote from a very emotional place. (I was basically “having a moment” and crying my eyes out one night and sat down to write.) But if that is what you and anyone else takes away from this, that makes me so, so happy. And the comments that I have received have been so helpful and healing for me… it’s been kind of like free therapy! So thank you for that! I’m really glad you came by…

      1. I’m glad you have those moments, and I’m glad you had him, for all the years that he was alive.

        It’s a huge, new thought. A lot of the counselling I went to seemed to be looking towards an end point of ‘being over it’.and ‘getting closure’. Which just seems so desolate, and so awful I can’t begin to contemplate it. I ran away in the end and didn’t go back, because it was too much to try to say goodbye (to give you some background – mine is an entirely different situation – I had two miscarriages and then my husband’s health worsened, meaning we will now never have children – those two dead, tiny babies are all I’m ever gonna have) and frankly I’m not sure I want to or have it in me to draw a line under them or close the book or whatever other metaphor people apply when they feel that someone ‘should’ be getting on with their life.

        I can appreciate the ‘having a moment’ whilst writing. I’ve been there. And it sucks, but to be able to pour it out in this way and to see it helping and supporting other people is HUGE. I’m glad you find it a buoying thing when others find a measure of healing in what you’ve written.

        And thanks again for writing it, and for your generous reply.

        1. I am so sorry to hear about you losses. That is so heartbreaking. The idea of “getting over it” or “time heals all wounds” or “closure” I think, are all bullshit. I think it’s something people (and often therapists) like to say when they don’t know what else to say. But I don’t think those concepts apply when you are dealing with deep and painful grief and loss. I will always be grieving in some way. I will always be caught off guard occasionally. And honestly, I don’t ever want to “get over it.” It’s a part of who I am now. I haven’t experienced the kind of loss that you have, but I imagine in many ways it may be more difficult. I imagine a lot of people don’t get it. I hope the people in your life have been sensitive and caring when it comes to your loss.

          1. Largely, they have, thank goodness. I hope people have been gentle with you, too.

            And no – what you say about it being part of who you are now – that’s spot on. And no, I don’t want to forget either.

  9. I never know what to say when I read posts like this, but I feel like I should say something.

    It’s a great post. It puts me there.

    Not sure how I would handle a situation like this. I might crumble, and I doubt I’d ever be able to write about it.

    1. Thank you so much Gene’O. I wasn’t sure if I would ever post it. I wrote it as a purging for myself and because when I’m emotional or upset I write. But I decided, kind of on a whim, to just put it out there. I figured if I can’t be real and raw here then what’s the point. But I will say I was pretty nervous and scared to put it out there. I’m so incredibly grateful that I have some amazing blog friends, like you, who are so supportive and who I feel like I can trust with personal writings like this. Thank you for that.

      1. I write like that, too. Something about the writing of it helps. It’s like writing stuff gets it out of my head.

        Publishing it is another matter. I’ve been scared to hit the publish button a few times in the last few months, but it’s always been the right decision so far.

        And just from scanning this thread, I agree. You do have some amazing blog friends.

        Take care.

        1. Yes! And writing helps me process and sort through my thoughts. I often realize things and uncover thoughts I didn’t even know where there when I’m writing about a personal or emotional event. I find it therapeutic even when it’s emotionally draining.

          As for being scared to hit the publish button, I think if you’re not scared to do it once in a while you maybe aren’t really pushing yourself. At least that’s what I tell myself when I break into a cold sweat!

          And thank you, you are one of the most supportive bloggers I know and I am truly grateful to be able to know you and Diana and to share thoughts and ideas with both of you!

  10. As I read, I was pulled between space and time. There I am beside you, helping you to stand through that holy moment. The next I am standing next to my mother’s breath listening to the her last breath (and my hope) escape forever. You have an amazing gift. The world needs your LIGHT. Just keep writing!

    1. I can’t tell you how honored I am that you said that. And I am so sorry for your loss of your mother. You response here is so beautiful and got me choked up with emotions. Thank you for coming here and for leaving such tender and supportive words.

  11. Wow. I thought I commented on this post when I read it, several days ago. I guess not. But I asked several of my Sisterwives to take a look, and I see that they did.

    This post is beautiful.
    It’s been 24 years for me, and I’ll never say goodbye. Ever. Thank you for articulating something I felt, but never really put into words.

    We’ll have to email. A group of us are starting a new blog, and we’d love for you to guest post over the summer. xoxo

    1. I felt awful when I realized I never said goodbye. My therapist asked me if I had said goodbye and I started crying. Then I felt so selfish and horrible. And I wrote this late one night, crying so hard I could barely see the screen. I was so scared to post it because it was too personal and raw. But after I posted it and started getting a response, it really did make me feel better. Now I know that he didn’t want me to say goodbye. He really did fight up until the last minute and I don’t think he wanted a lot of tearful conversations.

      I thought about you after I posted it and I worried that it might be hard for you to read. I hope it didn’t put you in a bad place. I know you know exactly how I feel about my brother and can relate to all of this… maybe our brothers are hanging together and reading our stuff and laughing their asses off at us right now… 🙂

      And I would guest post for you or your new group any time.

      1. Oh, I LOVE the image of our brothers hanging together!

        Everytime you write about your brother, it brings me a step closer to writing about mine.

        I’ll email you about the Sisterwives blog. We would LOVE to have you guest post for us. Because you are awesome.

  12. Lizzi from Considering sent me over. She knew I would love this post and would relate. And I do. Wiping away my tears here. Beautifully written. I’m having a rough weekend—something triggered these emotions from my sister’s death, which was five years ago, and I still am unable to accept the loss. I too, never said goodbye. I can’t. Thank you for being so brave in sharing this–I know how difficult it must have been. I wrote about my sister once as well—one of the hardest things I’ve done on my blog. If you’d like to read it some time, here is the link :
    Sending BIG hugs your way and hoping you are able to one day find the peace you deserve. XO

    1. I’m so glad you did come over here to read it. I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in struggling with this. In a way, this was my version of a “Goodbye” even though I refuse to say it. This was written with tears pouring down my face and sobbing but I feel like it was healing in a way too. And the response was incredibly healing. More so than I could have imagined. So many people said things that really helped me.

      I’m sorry you were having a rough weekend with your grief and loss. It’s almost cruel how it can sneak up on you… I’m heading over to read your post right now…

      *and also, Lizzie is awesome. I love her*

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