A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.


The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

28 thoughts on “A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

  1. Thank you for the example to follow. At 44 I am only just learning about the effect the “double-sided compliments” have had on me. I have a lot of trouble seeing the path to a comfortable peace. I know I am not the only one, seeing someone further down the path gives me some hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So poignant, so sad, yet somehow, nonetheless, ok all at the same time. Masterfully written.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dr. S, I’m really touched by what you wrote, really sorry you went through all that, really encouraged by your strength and sense of coherence, and really enlightened by the information you provided. (((Safe hugs))) and many thanks for your courage to share your story. I had never heard about the peak-end rule or the boomerang effect until now, but it makes complete sense, and it resonates with my own life struggles. I also never heard about (or perhaps I forgot about) the differences between the experiencing self (no voice) and the remembering self (the voice for which we learn from). I’m wondering if this is why certain approaches in therapy can be quite beneficial for those who’ve experienced grief and loss in their life – even grief and loss stemming from traumatic experiences. I’m wondering if treatments like coherence therapy (which I’ve never had the privilege of receiving or finding a doctor who administers it) and theoretical approaches stemming from positive psychology and other orientations, such as salutogenesis and conservation of resources theory, would help the remembering self to make sense and meaning out of very painful boomerangs (in order to eventually get to a place of acceptance – if that is the goal, or at least at a place of understanding in order to repurpose one’s life – if that is the goal). I don’t know much but what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced in my own life, but I’m truly touched by hearing brave stories like yours. I really liked the distinction of the voices – with the experiencing self having had no voice at all, and the remembering self being capable of having a voice (even if it isn’t always representative 100% of the experiencing self). It’s that voice that’s important and meaningful. It’s that voice that lives and matures, as depicted when you said, “It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.” I’m so glad that you were able to find a sense of peace, Dr. S. At least I think that’s what I read. Your story offers hope that it is possible to work through such grief. Endings are indeed hard. There are some endings that are existential, like the kind of endings related to relationship changes (though you still hold a relationship with a given person, but it’s changed), or the kind of endings that are milestones (you’ve accomplished a major goal successfully – a dream even – but what’s next scares you, brings about doubt, and for many reasons of falling in love with the journey to getting to your first dream goal, you are called to move on once that goal has been meet – it’s over on that level, and now you have to do something meaningful with it). Endings to traumatic experiences are also really tough. Many therapists and researchers have looked at the symptoms related directly to the trauma itself (e.g., physical assaults on the body, sexual assaults on the body, medical trauma, natural disaster trauma, etc.), but not too many people are looking at the losses acquired as a result of those traumas (e.g., loss of resources – per the conservation of resources theory; loss of self and identity; loss of time that could have been spent being happy and enjoying life; loss of internal strengths that were torn down; loss of jobs or careers in some cases; loss of appearance due to scarring or loss of limb; loss of mobility; loss of relationships; ecological losses; loss of dignity; loss of reputation; loss of social standing). Only recently have researchers begun looking at conservation of resources theory for veterans with either combat or military sexual trauma PTSD and the losses they’ve encountered as a result of the trauma, not only at the trauma itself. Perhaps it is the losses that more traumatic, bring about more posttraumatic symptoms, and bring about the real meaning behind the trauma itself. Losing relationships can feel like losing a part of yourself, or losing the opportunity to have a part of the self fulfilled through a parent or loved one (if it wasn’t already fulfilled before their passing). At least this is my take on grief and loss issues related to traumatic experiences, since that is my vantage point. Others may have had better endings, despite the peaks in their traumatic experiences, and perhaps that is what helped them to become more resilient, as evidenced by their lack of PTSD and their seemingly immediate posttraumatic growth. Perhaps there are other reasons to explain these different individual experiences, and perhaps COR theory is only one piece to the puzzle. It’s been my new quest, from all of my traumatic losses, to research the answers to these questions and, most importantly, find solutions. The remembering self seeks a solution, in my opinion. Anyway, I’m really touched by your post, Dr. S. It got me to think about a ton of things.


    • Coherence therapy is a new one for me, so I can’t comment on it. Yes, I am far more accepting and at peace with respect to my mom. It’s worth remembering that a life is in constant motion and, even if one tries to stay the same, he grows out of sync with a world that is changing. Also, when we try to describe a thing (whether by scientific measurement or the words used to express any emotional state) we change and alter the state by the effort of measurement. We put it into a box – not its normal habitat. To catch the wind we must alter it just a bit. I knew this piece would touch you, PP, but am grateful for your saying so, all the same. You are the really brave one here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, thank you, Dr. S. I’m so glad to hear about your acceptance and peace. By the way, prior to hearing about it a few weeks ago for the first time, I had never heard of coherence therapy until I spoke on the phone one day to a practitioner who discussed matters of foster care kids and adoption cases with me. He was inspired later in life to go back to grad school and pursue a terminal master’s degree in counseling so that he could exit politics and instead help out those like himself who were adopted. When he called me, he was curious to know why I was interested in research and clinical practice. I stated that I have experience with childhood trauma (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had given my daughter up for adoption, since that is personal to him). He stated that he utilizes coherence therapy for his clients in New Jersey. I thought that was interesting. He said that it is a new form of treatment for trauma survivors. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I thought it was part of the phastic trauma treatment I’ve heard of, or part of what we normally do when we journal and blog to one another; we are finding a sense of coherence naturally (not formally) whenever we meet with a therapist. But I’m guessing that there’s probably a more formal structure to what he’s talking about. I have no clue other than what I heard or read on salutogenesis. I’m a newbie at all this, so I have to go from reading and hearing about the material to translating its jargon into terms that I can interpret correctly to finally figuring out ways I can study it. But for my own personal life, I’m simply on this quest to enjoy life the best I can with the limitations I’ve got. Sometimes I try real hard to inspire myself to enjoy life, even when I don’t feel like it. I like what you said, Dr. S., about catching the wind. As scientists, we will use phenomenology to categorize the phenomenon of the wind, we will use some sort of experimental design to capture an entity of the wind (but not all of it) and then describe it, and we can decide which variables will predict how the wind will behave, respond, etc. We can even attempt to egotistically personify the wind to our own worldview experiences, to make sense of it, even if it introduces some bias. But in the end, there’s a cause and a reaction; and there’s the absolute value of the wind at any given moment in time, and without the concept of time but rather just a flow concept that is more fluid and free of time – the wind in its true form and longevity (from one life to another; from the days we have wind to the days we don’t; to the days we wait for the wind to be reborn–or waken from its slumber). I understand our need to put it into the box. It’s the only way we can figure out how to help people – by isolating its properties at a given time and categorizing it so that we can remember it and properly assess it for treatment. And sometimes the wind just simply needs to run its course. When the wind runs with rain or snow, however, that is when I get worried – Alone, they’re fine, but together, oh my – hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes – no thank you. I don’t know much about geology (other than a brief course I took as an undergrad), but personifying that to people, I can see how we can appreciation the wind’s personified emotions, but I can also see the need to tame it. Depending on the situation, our perspectives about the wind or anything can change. I love my mom, but I know that she can be a bit infantilizing at times, and I wished she were strong enough to get my father some help or to leave him or something, as opposed to taking his abuse and causing us kids to stay in that situation. For the longest time I was angry, and I was told by many people that I had a right to be angry. But I was also estranged from my mother, and I really didn’t want that either. I don’t get along with my sister (to this day), so I also avoided my mother because she lives with my sister. I love them both, but I get along with my mom. My mom does this thing where she says, “Don’t tell your sister….” I hate that! I finally replied to her last year, in my 40s, that the healthiest approach, I believe, is to be open and honest and not have these compartmentalized family secrets. I told her that it is healthier to speak directly to the person about what issues she has and about her own feelings than to speak to everyone else but the party involved. I hated the secrets and rumors about me, which eventually caught up to me. I hated it because everyone suffered until the secret finally came out, and until the person being slandered (if the rumors were false) or being gossiped about (if the rumors were true) was notified. The fewer secrets, the more we can work things out and not waste so much time feeling miserable and not knowing. Then again, maybe we’re all creatures of habit and love the sneakiness and rebelliousness of secrets. After all, our government and those in powers keep secrets from one another all the time, so secrets are a rather cultural practice. But when those secrets harm one or more people and create a domino effect, or a life’s worth of suffering for both the gossiped person and the gossiper, then it’s unhealthy. I’m the black sheep in the family, even though I’m a firstborn. But I’m really not a firstborn overall because I have half-siblings. So it’s not the same parent-child interaction as a true firstborn (at least in my opinion). I’m the black sheep. My mother tends to deflect whatever boundaries I have (such as when I tell her that I don’t want to hear gossip about my sister, but I’d rather see them try to work things out) by turning it back on me. She’s kind about it–almost frail like. What my mother said to me was that I was always a “peculiar” child – ever since the age of 2 years old my mother said that she had known this about me. She claims that the doctors would say I was “peculiar.” When I asked her what she meant by that, and how doctors could detect this at age 2, she didn’t answer. Another secret that bothers the shit out of me. But I love my mom. Okay, she can see me as “peculiar” and “different,” which makes her feel better for doing her own thing. I get it. I love my mom, but it’s hard when something seems “off.” Since last year I’ve had this inferiority complex about being “peculiar.” I laugh it off. Maybe I am, but what about my being age two and either meeting or exceeding some sort of stage-salient tasks would cause the doc to tell my mother that my two-year-old self was “peculiar.” Is “peculiar” like a garbage diagnosis to say that this child is odd, and there’s no medical or mental health diagnosis for it? Or, could it be, given my dissociative identity disorder, that I was abused at a very young age, and I was reacting to that abuse? –That is what one therapist had said. Makes sense what the therapist said, but my mother won’t admit it. I gently reminded my mother last year about the reality that my father abused not only me and my sister, but also my mom (his wife). She of course lives in a land of denial, and I could see her anxiety rise. She’s in her early 80s, so I really didn’t want to see her upset. But for my own sanity and for her knowing that I love her as my mom regardless of what happened in childhood to her or to me, I had to tell her the reality, so that my love for her isn’t candycoated with the denial she clings to. She knows now that I don’t live in denial (though I still use that defense mechanism from time to time), so my words “I love you” to my mom or my sister are real, despite everything we’ve been through. After that talk, we changed the subject and did some fun things like watch shows or have her teach me how to cook a meal (which I completely forgot how to do, LOL), or go out with the nieces (her grandkids). I did this on my own. No therapist to guide me through this, but with the help of many therapists from years ago, I used those tools and skills to finally do this after many years of avoidance and estrangement. I only wished that someone would tell me what happened when I was two (or earlier), but I guess I’ll never know. All I know are the nightmares and the images of the alternate personalities that remain internalized as part of me.


      • Sounds like there is a lot of “peculiar” to go around in the other family members. No such diagnosis. Dissociation is something we all do and can be thought of as like lots of other characteristics, ranging from those who do it little to Dissociative Identity Disorders.


  4. Beautifully written.


  5. Joseph Patrick Lori

    Right now, I am thinking that one could walk out into a busy city street at rush hour blindfolded and the odds would be 9-1 that the first person that you touched would have the same experience that you just described.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

      Leo Tolstoy


      • One of the great literary openings (from “Anna Karenina” for those who don’t recognize it). Thanks, Harvey.


    • I can’t gauge the odds, Joseph, but so many of our experiences overlap. A shame that too few of us can look at the common humanity we share and treat each other better because of that.


  6. A very poignant post Gerald, and I’m glad you had that moment with your mum. It was such a gift to have seen what your mum could have been if her life hadn’t been so troubled. It’s amazing how much a moment like that can heal the hurt of so many missed but yearned for opportunities in important relationships. I had a therapy relationship that ended on a very unsatisfactory note 12 yrs ago and caused me an immense amount of pain for many years, and at the end of last year I had to say a sort of goodbye to my current therapist who has moved interstate, but am continuing sessions by Skype. I worked very hard to make this goodbye something I could look back on knowing that on both sides it could be remembered with fondness. Thankfully it went well, and has healed a lot of unfinished business in my mind.
    Also my oldest brother gave me a hug today, we have had such a turbulent relationship because of the terrible psychological wounds we carry, over the years despite the care that we both have buried for each other, we have been like two ticking time bombs that go off. We have been so super sensitive with each other, for 50 yrs but seemed to be getting past it finally, and understand each other better. All the years of yearning just for one moment of approval and acceptance from each other. As long as both people are alive, never give up hope. Even the bittersweet reconciliations of end stage can make difficult memories more easier to live with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you got the hug, Claire. The waiting sounds to have been worth it. This is a very personal decision, one that doesn’t always end well. Had we infinite time, we could all wait, because there would always be more time to live past the resolution of the waiting, one way or the other. But, since we don’t have infinity, some difficult choices need to be made. I’ve seen people who lived their entire lives waiting for the love or approval and died still waiting. As I say, very personal and individualized.


  7. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing your own troubling relationship with your mother. Motherhood does not come naturally, I do believe. I continue to maintain my distance from my mother’s caustic tongue. My own experience as a mother of two young men comes with unintended hurts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rosaliene. As much as we share, as human beings, so many of the hurts, they are also so very particularized. As I have written here before, one must be careful never to say “I know how you feel” to anyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dr. S. I wrote too much above, which may have sounded self-centered and insensitive, since I’m dealing with some lingering issues from completely different things. Please forgive me. Standing corrected, I instead write the following. Quite simply, thank you for sharing your heart with us. You’re now on my list of people to hug. (((Dr. S))) you have an incredibly huge heart to share your own stories while spending what seems like a lifetime helping others. I am grateful to hear your triumphs through the pains you had, but I do hope that you’re showered with love from friends and family members who truly appreciate you. I can’t image what it is like to deal with a narcissistic mother (my abuse stemmed from my father, and my mother was his victim, too, so I don’t have any experience with that other than to empathize with what you went through). -Sincerely, PP


  9. very good post. love reading this blog


  10. On my way home from work today the radio was playing an “oldie” I had not heard in many years, but it instantly made me think about your essay. Some of the lyrics speak to the essence of your lovely piece. It’s called “The Living Years”:

    Every generation
    Blames the one before
    And all of their frustrations
    Come beating on your door
    I know that I’m a prisoner
    To all my Father held so dear
    I know that I’m a hostage
    To all his hopes and fears
    I just wish I could have told him in the living years

    Oh, crumpled bits of paper
    Filled with imperfect thought
    Stilted conversations
    I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
    You say you just don’t see it
    He says it’s perfect sense
    You just can’t get agreement
    In this present tense
    We all talk a different language
    Talking in defence

    Say it loud, say it clear
    You can listen as well as you hear
    It’s too late when we die
    To admit we don’t see eye to eye

    So we open up a quarrel
    Between the present and the past
    We only sacrifice the future
    It’s the bitterness that lasts
    So don’t yield to the fortunes
    You sometimes see as fate
    It may have a new perspective
    On a different day
    And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
    You may just be okay

    (Chorus again)

    I wasn’t there that morning
    When my Father passed away
    I didn’t get to tell him
    All the things I had to say
    I think I caught his spirit
    Later that same year
    I’m sure I heard his echo
    In my baby’s new born tears
    I just wish I could have told him in the living years

    Songwriters: B.A. Robertson / Mike Rutherford (gb)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. awesome post . this is my favorite blog


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