On Goodbyes

There’s a different meaning to the word “sorry” depending on the way we say it, and the context in which we say it.

If you say it absentmindedly after bumping into someone, the word “sorry” effectively means “pardon me”—I’ll call this the common sorry. It’s not at all a supplication for absolution or whatever else sorry might mean to someone who’s done something wrong, which I’ll call the absolutionary sorry (I don’t subscribe to the standard use of absolutionary sorry, but that’s for another post).

And I think most people readily recognize that “sorry” means many things, depending on context. Otherwise the convention of “you said it, but you didn’t mean it” wouldn’t exist.

For me, valedictions operate the same way. “Goodbye” has different meanings, and, like “sorry,” it has two general categories of use: quotidian and violently potent.

We say “goodbye” or “bye” to people all the time, especially in text or over the phone. This is sort of the equivalent to the “pardon me” version of sorry, except this ordinary usage of “goodbye” means “we’re pausing for now, and this is the end of the current communication/interaction, but nothing else.” The common goodbye, as I’ll call it, functions just like a period at the end of a sentence; we pay attention to it just as much, and it carries all the same emotional weight (which is to say, none).

But there is another kind of goodbye, just like there is another kind of sorry. This is the denouementary goodbye; I don’t think “denouementary” is technically a word, but I made it from the word “denouement,” which is “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.”

The denouementary goodbye is perhaps one of the most forceful things in the human world. We say it to enemies, to loved ones, and many people in between. Its purpose is to bring a grand thing to a close, whether that is a relationship, a phase of life, or even a life itself. We give the common goodbye every day, but we reserve the denouementary goodbye for: trips across the planet, weddings, college departures, and funerals.

And I know that traveling abroad, like many things, isn’t as final as it used to be, especially with communications technology. But when I’ve travelled, the denouementary goodbye isn’t exchanged because that moment of international departure is final—it’s exchanged in advance, in case, because of events that may happen far away, it would have needed to be.

Because of its nature, I do not generally like to give the denouementary goodbye. To give it is to recognize a final end in some form.

I’ve moved across the country a few times, for a variety of reasons: college, work, or because I wanted to. I’ve lived abroad several times. And now, just as I (perhaps) am starting to stand still, I find that others are moving around me, in life and location. I’ve generally been the one leaving others, and rarely am I the one being left. It’s a curious reversal to say the least, and not necessarily a bad thing.

When I’ve left people and places, I’ve refused denouementary goodbyes, both giving and receiving them. And I still do. In many cases, someone moving across the country warrants a goodbye, but it’s a kind that stands between the common and denouementary. It’s sort of a very extended “see you later.” I’ll call it the extended goodbye. And it truly is just “see you later.” Life is long, and full of surprises. Combined with technological advances, there is a decreasing need for the denouementary goodbye, and more need for the extended goodbye in its place.

But I also recognize that there could possibly come a time when denouementary goodbyes will be warranted, whether I want them or not. If I ever get sufficiently old, or sufficiently sick, they will be necessary. If someone I love does either, they will be necessary. If I fall in love, and then the love fractures, they will be necessary.

Denouementary goodbyes, until recently, could be used on both good and bad occasions. They marked a final transition, and those are both good and bad. But our technological progress as a species increasingly turns the cases of good denouementary goodbyes into simple extended goodbyes. More and more, denouementary goodbyes are solely the province of those finalities we would rather not face if we didn’t have to.

There’s no moral to this essay, just a reflection: I’m happy that I currently have a life that requires many extended goodbyes, but no denouementary ones. I know that will change, but it hasn’t yet.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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