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Saying Goodbye With Compassion

As we move into the last two months of 2023, I am reflecting on the year and the learning along the way. It feels like a recurring theme this year has been saying goodbye, whether it is the inevitability of life’s changing seasons, demonstrated by the felling of my favourite apple tree in an Autumn storm; the heart-wrenching loss of our beloved dog, Ella, in June or the sad goodbye and optimistic new beginning of waving herd member Paddy off to pastures new as he joins a lovely new family.

Each one of these goodbyes has had its own signature and reverberations and my mindfulness practice is teaching me to allow time and space for that, just as my work as a trauma-informed practitioner helps me to acknowledge that each goodbye we say awakes echoes of previous endings. This can mean farewells can evoke a sense of profound sadness and loss. Sometimes the emotions evoked seem highly appropriate but sometimes the strength of our feelings can seem disproportionate to the actual trigger event to those around us. This is where mindful awareness and self-compassion can be especially helpful.

So, in this post, I will share some personal reflections and end by sharing some of the practices that have helped both me, and the many clients I work with, navigate the weather systems of change, grief, loss and goodbye.

The inevitability of change

Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, famously observed “The only constant is change”. We only have to observe nature to see the truth of this. But for humans, coming to terms with life’s changing seasons can be poignant and even painful, leaving us with a sense of existential anxiety. As a young man, Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddah, observed the inevitability of old age, illness and death and how our resistance to these realities creates much additional suffering for us. The teachings of mindfulness give us guidance on how to loosen up this resistance and work with wisdom and kindness with our human condition.

Taking a long view, and with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that one of the reasons I found our move to Luxembourg, more than 10 years ago, so tough was because I didn’t have the internal tools or resources to work through saying goodbye to the family, friends, work and the support network I was leaving behind. And if we don’t allow time to grieve it can be difficult to be fully present and engaged in the here and now. It’s as if we are clinging onto a ghost – something that doesn’t exist anymore - and always have one foot stuck in the past.

An opportunity to deal gracefully with life’s changing seasons was offered to me recently. Arriving to care for the horses a few weeks ago and finding my favourite apple tree lying, roots exposed to the elements, was a stark reminder of the universal truth of change and impermanence. To some, saying goodbye to a tree may seem insignificant or indulgent but that tree was special to me. It was the tree I often sat under to practice meditation amongst the horses and it was the tree that ‘held space’ many times whilst I worked with clients on personal challenges, issues that may be troubling them or positive intention setting. The tree was symbolic, representing the setting down of my roots here in Luxembourg, the strength to weather the storms and changing weather patterns of life, the promise that Spring follows Winter and the possibility of growth. This is one of the reasons I practice mindfulness - to help me lean compassionately and gently into these truths: change, loss, and the possibility of growth. And as I work in the field, I will keep my eyes open for saplings.

Loss and grief

When a loved one dies it feels like the ultimate loss. So, when our beloved dog, Ella, died at the beginning of June, I tried to attend compassionately to the grieving of myself and the family and give my feelings the space to be felt. Those who have loved and lost a family dog, cat, or other beloved companion animal, will no doubt appreciate the sadness of saying goodbye to a pet and the gap they leave in a family. Ella’s passing was very sudden, we knew she had a heart condition but she was receiving medication and was only 10 years old. Thankfully she was happy and comfortable until her last 24 hours but the suddenness and the manner of the goodbye were distressing and left me oscillating between numb and unbearably jangly and agitated.

Although I allowed myself to float through some of the moments of numbness, I also found it helpful, at times, to ground myself, coming back to a sense of feet firmly planted on the earth, or to allow myself a moment of appreciation - a connection with a loved one or a beautiful sight in nature. In the moments of overwhelm, I was sometimes able to acknowledge, “This is how it feels to lose someone we love” and able to offer myself a soothing touch and some kind internal words. These tender ways of offering myself kindness and compassion have been hugely supportive and I share the RAIN and the SUN of self-compassion that helped me so much during this time below.

Having lost my mum a few years previously, I know the importance of saying goodbye with ceremony and remembering the joyful moments with gratitude. So, we had a family ceremony to say goodbye and remember and share many of the things we were grateful for about our special companion. It is also meaningful to me to have a special place where I can go to acknowledge her and feel close. And, of course, we can also access that sense of closeness, wherever we are, through memory or a mindful pause to connect with loving kindness.

We recently welcomed a new puppy to the family and although he brings much happiness and love, I still miss Ella’s physical presence every day and find small things that poignantly remind me of her. Whether to welcome a new pet to the family and when family members may be ready to do this, is a very personal choice. I recognise it is important to leave space for grieving and that welcoming a new member of the family rightly takes up a lot of time and energy. We need to be ready for this. Considering what works for different family members can be a matter of mindful listening and compassionate compromise. Personally, I recognise, as the months have passed, the sadness of Ella’s loss is matched in equal measure by immense gratitude for the love and joy she brought to our lives. It does not lessen the sense of loss but is never the less a soothing balm.

Waving Goodbye

Making a decision on behalf of those we care for is often difficult and I recently made the painfully hard decision to find a new family for herd member Paddy. Many complex threads fed into my decision and of course, the welfare of the herd was uppermost in my thoughts and heart. It is a big responsibility to care for companion animals, and meeting their needs, particularly the daily hands-on work required to care for horses. Juggling this with day-to-day family life and work responsibilities and caring for an ageing parent overseas, I recognised I had reached a point where my caring responsibilities outweighed my ability to cope. To be congruent in what I teach as a Well-Being Coach, I need to listen to my own needs. And as an Equi-Coach I recognised Paddy needed more movement and exercise than I was able to give him and his increasing weight was adversely affecting his health. So, when I was approached by a lovely family of 3-generations who were looking for an additional equine to join them on their family farm, it was an ideal match all around.

That does not mean that saying goodbye is easy. Paddy has been both a family member and a colleague for the last four years. And of course, it is not just me saying goodbye but the rest of our family, both human and equine, and the many clients who have formed a connection to Paddy. The process of saying goodbye is ongoing and the ripples of Paddy’s influence continue even though he now lives in Germany. I am immensely grateful to him for his generosity and insight as a teacher. Lessons which he offered with clarity and personality include, standing your ground, being clear on personal boundaries and getting your own needs met whilst being part of a community.

As I continue to work through my own process of goodbye and supporting clients with theirs, I am grateful for the many ways of compassionately relating to emotions that I have learned through my professional training and work. With this in mind, I share below some ways of compassionately relating to change, loss, goodbyes and other strong emotions. These are tools that have served me well and that many of my clients have also found supportive when dealing with transition, loss, burnout and the search for greater well-being. Please note if you are dealing with something particularly raw or tender right now then go gently with yourself and don’t underestimate how helpful it can be to work with a qualified therapist or coach to support you through difficult times.

3 Ways to Say Goodbye With Mindfulness and Compassion

Appreciate the Gift of the RAIN

One of the tools I personally find most helpful in working with difficulty mindfully and kindly is Tara Brach’s version of the RAIN acronym. Through the process of RAIN, we are invited to recognise what’s present for us, allow it rather than pushing it away, and investigate the texture, quality and nuances of our experience with curiosity and kindness, and using the insights gained from the first three steps, offer ourselves nurture and kindness, maybe in the form of kind words to ourselves, soothing touch or practical caring actions.

There’s also a subsequent step, what Tara Brach calls ‘after the rain’ where we can notice what’s here for us following the RAIN, maybe something has shifted, maybe not. Perhaps there is a sense of tenderness or possibility, much like the freshness we may notice after a spring shower? Or is there a sense of release and completeness like that sometimes tangible after a big storm?

It’s said that what we resist persists. Often, if we ignore our emotions, they will shout louder for our attention, for instance, annoyance eventually blowing up in harsh words or rage or sadness that is not given expression turning into despair or depression. Emotions are also often expressed in our body - tension, tightness, aches and pains. Noticing and responding to this helps stop things from getting blocked. RAIN gives us a valuable way of acknowledging what’s here for us and responding with mindful awareness and kindness. You can find a rich library of RAIN resources on Tara Brach’s website.

Allow Yourself to be Nourished by the Warmth of the SUN

The SUN is another tool drawn from the field of Mindful Self-Compassion. It is an acronym which I have developed based on the Self-Compassion Break created by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer. It also features in the Mindfuness-Based Compassionate Living course which I teach. The Self-Compassion Break invites us to: acknowledge moments of suffering, recognise this is part of our shared human experience, and offer ourselves kindness. It is an old favourite of mine which I have written about before.

We can Allow ourselves to be nourished by the warmth of the SUN as a first response to any moment of difficulty or distress. The acronym SUN is a neat reminder of the stages of the mantra: Suffering, Unity, Nurture: recognising a moment of channelling, difficulty or suffering, acknowledging that these moments are part of being human and we all suffer in this way, wishing ourselves well in the midst of our challenge. You can listen to a guided version of the practice on the Audio Resources page of my website.

Create your own Gratitude Ceremony in Nature

This is a nature-based practice which harnesses the power of conscious ceremony. You can use the practice to create any kind of ceremony and it can be particularly powerful for offering gratitude, saying goodbye and letting. The first step is to take a walk in nature with the intention of foraging material to create an offering for your ceremony.

On your walk, depending on the season and what catches your attention, collect wildflowers, grasses, leaves, berries, seeds or cones. Also, look out for a suitable place to hold your ceremony. When you have foraged enough and decided on an appropriate spot, arrange your offering in any way you feel inspired to, maybe creating a bouquet, a wreath or a collage. You may also want to prepare some special words for the occasion: a prayer, poem or eulogy.

If you have a religious belief you may want to align your service with this or you may simply decide the allow expression of your gratitude or goodbye with the help of nature’s bounty. To begin your ceremony, invoke an attitude of mindfulness and set your intention for the ceremony whether that is to give thanks, say bye or let go. Then, place your nature offering in your chosen special place and say a few words, out loud or in the quiet of your own heart. Stay as long as you feel is helpful and when you are ready leave knowing this is a special spot you can return to whenever you choose to reconnect with the sentiment.

Closing reflections

Allowing space for our emotions with kindness and compassion can be something that takes courage so I invite you to go into this work gently. And if the article has brought up anything for you that you would like some extra support with you are very welcome to get in touch and arrange a free, no-obligation, Clarity Call to explore how to support and resource yourself moving forward.

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