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Missing the chance to say goodbye

Over the past year, we haven’t said “hello” to people in the ways that we are used to.

Katy Marling at her desk (cropped)

Giving loved ones and friends a “hello” and a hug seems a lifetime ago. I’m still not used to trying to read people’s faces using only their eyes - are they feeling happy? Sad? Is anyone bothering to buy lipstick anymore? My lip glosses and lip liners are all gathering dust in the makeup box.

As well as having to adapt to saying hello to people virtually; through a video or voice call, keeping our distance and learning how to judge someone’s mood or state of mind by only using their eyes, we are also tasked with different ways of saying “goodbye."

A goodbye hug has been replaced with a socially distanced wave, a kiss and a cuddle to our relatives isn’t safe at the moment, and I for one have felt this as a sort of bereavement in itself. Our cultural norms and social interactions have changed so much, and I know I’m not alone when I say that I can’t wait until they go back to how they used to be, whenever that is.

When we say goodbye, in normal circumstances, we take for granted that we are going to see that person again. We know that we will say “goodbye” but a “hello” is just around the corner. This year has unsettled that balance. Will everything be OK in the morning? Will my loved one need to isolate? Will they go to hospital? Will they come out again?



For those accessing the support of the Hospice, the thought of having to say goodbye is altogether a more serious and frightening prospect. Time is short. How many more hellos do they get before they have to say goodbye? Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, these everyday words have become much more precious and meaningful, and the way they are expressed, or in some cases, missed, has been devastating for those affected.

As part of my role as a community nurse, a lot of my work is done over the phone. Providing both clinical and emotional support to our community, day and night. Coming to the Hospice in January of 2020, I had no idea that I was starting a new role which was to be hurtled into a situation which none of us could have anticipated, and providing this support to people predominantly without being able to make face to face contact was a huge challenge and learning curve. Things like tone of voice, time taken, and detailed note-taking became even more important.

The most emotional calls during the pandemic have been relating to people who have missed the chance to say goodbye. People who have received their diagnosis, and have deteriorated so quickly that they haven’t had a chance to say goodbye to their grandchildren. People who have been admitted to hospital, and their loved ones who call our advice line for help getting through to the hospital teams, who are rushed off their feet. All of these calls wanting to be able to make contact, so that they can say goodbye.

Those of us who have lost loved ones during the pandemic know the pain of not being able to give a hug, one last kiss, or to hear their voice for the last time. Having been separated from my beautiful nanny (who was in hospital) for weeks before her death, I know the longing and the pain of wanting to give her a kiss goodbye, just as it should be. Thankfully, Nanny came into Saint Francis Hospice, and I was able to say goodbye. I know that this has not been the case for so many thousands of people, and I will always be grateful for my goodbye to my nanny.

Supporting each other as colleagues has been a lifeline. Although not able to let off steam in the normal ways, such as a coffee after work or a glass of wine, we’ve seen each other at our most dynamic, vulnerable, tired, and anxious. I feel that I have got to know my colleagues well over this past year, possibly more quickly than I would have done in “normal” circumstances.

Although our patients and their families dread the last goodbye, I now realise that to say a proper goodbye is a luxury that so many have not been afforded this past year.

Nobody wants to say goodbye. Nobody wants to imagine that tomorrow they will wake up with someone missing. The unimaginable pain of grief coupled with the isolation of this year has been sometimes overwhelming to witness, let alone experience.

My reflection of this year, and missing the chance to say goodbye, has been to treasure the best of human interaction. A kind word, a reassuring touch, a warm hug. Remembering what it’s like to breathe in the smell of someone’s perfume. Even when goodbyes hurt, and they do, to never forget that I’m lucky to be able to do it.


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