Teach Them How to Pray Goodbye

by | May 15, 2018 | After College, Spirituality


In the little-known Broadway musical “Hamilton: An American Life” there is a song, One Last Time, in which George Washington is telling Alexander Hamilton how important it is to teach future Presidents how to say goodbye.  During my years of working in Higher Education, I’ve witnessed how rushed the last couple of months are for people graduating as they leave a place that has become home and transition to grad school, work, or maybe unemployment.  With that in mind, I touched base with two great campus ministers, Anna Ryan at Saint Peter’s University and Lauren Schwer at Loyola University Chicago, to speak about their experience working with folks saying goodbye.

Why is it important to say goodbye:


When I was praying my way out of JVC, one JVC staff member encouraged us to think about saying goodbye/farewell through these steps: feel, celebrate, forgive, set-off. As I’ve moved around a lot since graduating college, I have used these simple yet profoundly beautiful words to help me pray my own goodbyes. I find that they, like the Examen, help me to walk through an experience honestly, without rose-tinted glasses, to name the grace and the struggle and to give thanks to the God who walked with me through it all.

Goodbyes are hard, often because they invite a depth of vulnerability that we don’t often live out of in daily life. But they are important because, among many other things, they allow us the opportunity to acknowledge who we are as a result of our experiences and relationships – who we are as part of a community. They call us to hold the tension between grief and gratitude for what is finished. And they challenge us to name how we have been changed and, like the Magi after visiting Christ in the manger, how because of our experiences we will go home a different way.


Anna’s response is far deeper than I was planning on writing because I got all caught up in Hamilton and also a long conversation at a lunch with a group of seniors today who are thinking about Irish goodbye-ing college.

It’s important to say goodbye because it gives a ritualized opportunity to name what someone has meant to you. Anna mentioned vulnerability – I think when you don’t have to worry about when you’ll see them next, you are more likely to be more honest, more appreciative of individual gifts, and less likely to hold back on sharing those moments.  As I’ve been saying goodbye to people this week, it gives me a chance to name for students what I’ve appreciated in them while they’ve been here…and it feels sincere and less awkward than if I had shared that with them previously. It allows you to pause and be grateful for the different ways people have changed you or impacted you in some way. It honors the good. And we live in a world that doesn’t always get to honor all the good because there is so much anguish and challenge that takes our energy.  

But last thought…goodbye does not have to be a forever thing. When I talk to students, I remind them that there are a million ways to be in touch. That I haven’t lived in the same city as my best friends in 8 years and I’m closer to them now than I was then. That even if you and your best friends lived in the same city/down the street the rest of your lives, other parts of life would start taking priorities and you couldn’t spend every waking moment together.  So saying goodbye helps, knowing it isn’t all over helps, and giving people the freedom to say that relationships can change and grow, even away from this space…helps.

They could have helped George Washington write one heck of a goodbye.  Too bad he only had Hamilton to help him. Anna mentioned how important The Examen has been, and I agree that can be really helpful to pray goodbye.  

An Examen for Graduation:

Gratitude: It’s easy to just say I’m thankful for this time.  During this time be specific, who are the people you are thankful for? Which experiences will you never forget? What places will always be sacred to you?

Presence: From this moment of gratitude, pause to ask God to be present to you review your time in college, to look at it as honestly as possible at all the joys and all the sorrows, the early morning classes, the late night stumbles, the first semester friendships, and the ones that lasted.  A: Pay attention to your feelings and emotions. Be honest with yourself and others about how you are doing — moving from college into post-grad life is a huge transition that will only naturally result in feeling out of sorts at times. Don’t think about how you should be feeling, just pay attention to how you are.

Remember: How do you review four years? Take a breath, this is an exercise of trust, allow God to lead you.  A place to start might be on day 1. What was it like moving into your room? What was it like driving on to campus and finding the building for your first class?  What emotions do you remember? Spend time at that moment with God, and then let God lead you to those later memories, some forgotten and some as fresh as the spring flowers.  There is no need to rush. L: Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling whenever you feel it. If you are super excited, be excited. If you need to cry, cry. Be gentle with yourself and recognize that any of those emotions might change at any given moment.

One Last Time: As you reviewed the years, was there a memory or a specific theme that emerged during your time with God?  Spend time talking with God about this, it might be an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, express gratitude, or just remember.  L: Name what growth has occurred and create a plan of how to remain connected to that growth.  This could mean ritualizing it, drawing something, connecting to a parish or a place to find a spiritual director.

Looking forward: Transitions can be tough. Just because you have graduated that does not mean the next chapter is exactly clear.  What emotions are you feeling about what is coming next? Be as honest as possible. Praying through the transition is an on-going project. A: Invite God into your daily life, asking for what you need as you transition — some grace/patience with yourself and others, perhaps?

There is no one right way to say goodbye to an experience that can be life changing. So in the words of the great Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete”. From all of us at TJP, you are in our prayers.  


Stay tuned to The Jesuit Post’s After College series for more advice on what college graduates should expect as they transition away from college.


Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Illinois Springfield, found here.


Jason Downer, SJ

jdownersj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Jason