How to say goodbye so that you can move on

The surprising truth about endings

Imagine a group of people. A family, a company, or a group of friends. A member leaves for whatever reason. The truth is this: If that member is not acknowledged for their contribution, the group’s healthy dynamics are compromised.

When I read about this phenomenon in John Whittington’s book ‘Systemic Coaching and Constellations’, I was blown away. I had not realized how important a proper ending was. Not only for the person leaving, but for the ones staying behind as well.

Expelling someone without thanking them affects the group negatively. It is even worse when it becomes a taboo to speak about the person who left. The person who replaces the one who left may struggle to fit in the group. Old relationship dynamics get recreated with new players. The group can become dysfunctional.

It makes you rethink the way most companies fire people. Sometimes they ask the employee to be accompanied to the door directly after breaking the news. Companies try not to make a big deal out of the dismissal. But, they achieve the opposite. They make it difficult to deal with, both for the fired one and the employees staying with the company.

Leaving without a proper closure is harmful. ‘Unfinished business’ tends to haunt us.

When endings work

I looked at my past. There were times that I nailed my goodbyes. When my first boss at Google left the company, I wanted to give him a special gift. He was a professional photographer. I was doing painting classes at the time. I took one of his photographs of a wild bird and painted a canvas with the same image. With some nice words on the back.

It took me hours to make it. It was a good way to acknowledge how much I had learned from him. We are still in touch, and he is a good mentor and friend.

When I left Spain after three years of living there, I threw a leaving party. All my friends got to write something on a huge Spanish flag that I took with me. Yes, I have a flavor for the theatrical.

One of my close friends is traveling this week to say goodbye to her mom. Her mom was given by the doctors two weeks to live. What a hard goodbye to say. And what a blessing. To have the opportunity to say it. I am sending her my love.

Endings with no closure

There were times when I failed miserably to say a proper goodbye. It was in my hand to do so, but I didn’t. It is shocking how much I still carry those times with me.

It was 2014, and it was my last day at work before my one-year maternity leave. I knew I was not going to work with the same clients when I would come back. My company had hired someone else to take over my portfolio. I would be given a different one upon my return.

I had sent my farewell emails to my clients. My closest client emailed me back. He wanted to have a call to give me a proper send-off. He said I was 'magic' for his business. The best compliment I had ever received for my work. I was busy running around wrapping everything up. I was heavily pregnant and could not wait for my leave to start. Maybe I did not feel comfortable saying goodbye by phone. I did not call him.

It is interesting how many times I have thought of this incident since. As I said, unfinished business tends to haunt us like that. I did not maintain contact with that client.

A proper send-off is not about having a leaving do or something ceremonial like that. Although, it does help. It is about giving acknowledgment in your heart and verbally. What did the people and the system give you? It is about taking the positive with you and leaving the negative behind.

When I left my second job, I organized a leaving do in the office. I even brought my legendary Greek salad for the colleagues. In my heart, though, I felt bitter with the company.

My bosses had promised me a bonus which they never got to pay. They had forgotten to mention it was linked to company performance and not my own. The company performance was not transparent. I felt short-changed.

They also felt betrayed because I had accepted another job. The goodbye was cold.

I realize now how much that company had given me. What I had gained did not even compare with the value of the missed bonus. An opportunity to live in Spain and travel. A promotion and management responsibility when I was just 23 years old. An opportunity to learn at a rapid pace.

I still had to leave. The next role was a step up. But I needed to acknowledge and thank my old company for what they had offered me.

They should have done the same with me. Shortly after I left, they went into a lawsuit with one of their clients because they would not pay them. They needed witnesses to prove that we had done the work. They could not reach out to me because of the way we had left things. I found out from an old colleague.

Leaving on good terms is not only about avoiding the psychological burden of lack of closure. It is also a practical consideration in the small world we live in. As an old Irish proverb says:

Do not cut a knot you can untie.

What now?

I am about to wrap up my 6-month stay in Thailand. I was tempted to leave without making any noise. I sometimes do that when I leave a party. I may not say goodbye not to spoil people’s fun.

But, after I studied the importance of closure for both the one leaving and the ones left behind, I changed my mind. I threw a farewell party two days ago for the friends we met here. I bought a goodbye gift for my nanny. I will make an effort to thank everyone that made this Sabbatical special. From my yoga teacher to my local restaurant owner.

I am also buying treats for my daughter’s nursery so she can also have a leaving do with her friends.

Call to action

I invite you to think. When in your life did you end things well? Remember the people, the jobs, and the neighborhoods you left. How did you send off the people who left you? What difference did the ending make on how you remember the whole experience? How it affected whether you keep in touch with the people involved? Feel free to share your answers in the responses section.

Here is my recipe for a good ending. Whether you are the one leaving or the one being left behind:

  • Acknowledge what you gained from the relationship.
  • Give thanks
  • Say goodbye
  • If you had an ending without closure in the past, see if you can make it right. Just send an email saying thank you.
  • If that’s not possible, even writing a thank you note you never send may help with the closure as well.

You may not like goodbyes. They make you face a loss after all. But it is the best way to move on. Keep the good. Leave the bad behind. Just give thanks. And then start your next adventure.


Caterina Kostoula is an Executive Coach and a Global Business Leader at Google.

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