How do you say goodbye?  It seems like such an existential question and yet it is one that has come up all too often for me as of late. It is one thing to have to say good-bye and move on from people who are your friends. But how do you say goodbye to clients? How do you say goodbye to the people who have trusted you in such an implicit way?

In this blog, I talk about giving a voice to the voiceless. I try to invite the reader in to understand the lives of some individuals who may never have the chance to tell you their stories from their own perspective. I have been privileged to be able to be a person in so many people’s lives who are given the gift of receiving those stories; to bear witness to their pain, their struggle, their hopes, their joys and to weave it all together into this story that is theirs uniquely and worthy of dignity.  And then to share it with all of you, in hopes that we can be more compassionate and more merciful to one another.

There is a sacred trust when someone comes in and starts to unpack their lives in front of you. When they pull out the snippets of sentences that will begin to form their stories, they often hand them to you a piece at a time with shaking fingers and trembling hearts, so accustomed are they to rejection.  And I, by no virtue of my own, other than this determination of my heart to use it in the service of others, was God able to use me to help provide them with that shred of dignity they so desperately needed.

But here is the crux of the issue. When you work in this field, there is high turnover, people get moved, people leave to further their education, whatever the case may be; they go. For ourselves, our clients are individual stories we are compiling which will make up the tapestry of our experiences. But for our clients, we are the dogged protagonist who plays the important role of creating an environment in which change begins to feel possible. We are not bit players, we are perhaps the only character in their story that is willing to see beyond their present circumstances, and we hold their hope in our hands, and then we say goodbye. Sometimes, as it was in a few of my situations, it is an abrupt goodbye. There was not the necessary time to prepare or to make a plan to transition them to someone else. Or to prepare their hearts and psyches for yet another change, another person who is walking away. When you work with the most vulnerable populations, leaving feels cruel, and yet it is at times, unavoidable.

So how do you leave?  How? In my case, I had one lunchtime. I had one hope that all the usual players would assemble and that I would be able to take a few minutes with each to tell them how blessed I was that they gave me their trust, that they shared their voice with me. To tell them that someone else would come behind me and pick up where I left off and that everything would be OK.  There were the ones who asked me why? Why could I not stay at least until……until the housing came through? Until they got their I.D. until they got their 3-month coin from AA they were so excited to show me. Until they found out about the job interview they had just gone on…until. But worst yet were the ones, who simply said, of course, you are leaving.

There are no answers and this blog post is never about a simple answer.

The answer to how you say goodbye, is that you simply can’t.

I carry them all with me. I carry Frank and Chelsea, and Greg, and Shannon, and John…and they become a part of how I will approach the next person, and the next. They have all taught me so much, and there is no way for me to just leave them behind. And so I incorporate their stories and I guard them. I tell people who are complaining about “those schizophrenics who hang out in the library”, what it was like to watch Greg get his first paycheck.  Or when people say that you can’t build trust with a person who has been so brutalized by past abuse, I tell them what it was like the first time Shannon came in and sat next to me in church. When people say that a pedophile can only be treated as the monsters that they are, I will tell them about my friend who found his first job after 29 years in prison, and to celebrate he distributed clean socks and hygiene products he purchased with his first paycheck, to the people living in their cars at the truck stop. I will tell people that we are all a sum total of our stories, and these stories are vast and wide and can’t be put into a category or boiled down to simple experience. I will tell them that saying goodbye means breaking my heart a little wider so that God can fill it more deeply.

In the job that I do, in the organization I work for, we are told that we don’t say goodbye, we say see you later. And so this is what I said on my last day there, see you later.  Because I will; I will see pieces of them in every client that I ever serve. Stories told with the human voice are so powerful, because they can be retold and passed on. It is a sacred trust, and one I don’t take lightly. Not Goodbye. See you later.  


Karen Cassidy (stmichaelcas@gmail.com)

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.

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