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The Importance of a Meaningful Goodbye

Article written by Dr. Bill Webster

Tragedies often come out of nowhere. They are unexpected, unwanted and in many cases, unimaginable. Who would have thought that a virus which began in China could cause a global pandemic that would bring so much of life as we know it to an effective standstill? All of us are grieving the world we once enjoyed.

During this pandemic, many people have struggled with multiple losses, including the death of loved ones.

What has made a difficult situation even more complicated is that rules and restrictions have limited the opportunity to hold a celebration of life, funeral service or other meaningful ceremonies to commemorate a life lived. Rituals, no matter what form they take, create an occasion to say a meaningful goodbye, which helps us face the reality of what has happened, thus beginning the journey towards reconciliation and closure.

Sadly, today’s situation has left many feeling, “This is not what I would have wanted for my loved one.”

Therefore, the issue becomes, what do you do when there is nothing you can do?

The answer to that important question is what we want to talk about here.

The Importance of Remembrance

It is an oft-overlooked principle that “Grief invites us to REMEMBER, not to FORGET.” Grieving people find that they are thinking about their loved ones all the time. They cannot get them or the situation out of their minds.

This happens for a reason. It is how our mind comes to terms with something that seems unimaginable and unbelievable.

This process can be further complicated when there is no opportunity to say goodbye, reconcile unfinished business or celebrate the person’s life while commemorating their death. That is what rituals help us accomplish. A ritual, whether religious, secular or some simple act of participation, is something we do when there is nothing we can do.

However, many of the rituals of grieving, adapting and integrating, which are essential elements of the grief process and the search for meaning, have been cancelled, postponed or at least restricted. These albeit necessary circumstances have limited the opportunity for many to be able to have the funeral they wanted.

Suzanne lost her brother 10 months ago. She made a very telling comment recently: “COVID has put my grief on hold,” she said. “I manage to convince myself that the reason I haven’t seen my brother is not that he has died, it’s because of COVID. It’s so difficult not having a funeral … it just doesn’t seem real. I’ve been believing he is coming home for over a year.”

What she is telling us is that dealing with COVID has allowed people to delay their grief, or even more significantly, to extend the disbelief of the reality of their loss. The seeming inability to share in or express a meaningful goodbye has and will complicate the grieving process.

Reasons for a Meaningful Goodbye

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

But how can we find meaning in a situation that somehow doesn’t feel real, far less complete. While the COVID crisis is not over just yet, we need to begin to focus on how to make sense of all that has happened in order to find ways to move forward.

So, the question becomes: “How can we acknowledge that our loved one’s life was meaningful, even though the circumstances of their death will never make any sense to us?”

This is the challenge facing people today, who, in many cases, confronted with albeit necessary restrictions and regulations, feel they have not been able to say a meaningful “goodbye.”

So, what do we do when there is nothing we can do? The answer is to have some kind of ritual or ceremony to enable ourselves to begin to reconcile what has happened. But how do we go about that?

Some may ask, “Is it too late?” When death occurred is not the most important concern for I believe we can offer creative alternatives to people who are searching for an opportunity to find closure in a meaningful goodbye.

Two years ago, my son Steve suffered a severe brain injury in an accident and was airlifted to a trauma centre far from his home. When he succumbed to his injuries, the geographical circumstances meant we could not have a traditional funeral immediately. With heavy hearts, we simply had to make arrangements for him to be cremated.

But within a few months, we had TWO celebrations of life, one in the town of his residence with his many friends; and then a few weeks later, in the city where I live and where Steve grew up.

These celebrations did not make the tragedy of his death any more meaningful. But they were of tremendous help in reaffirming the meaningfulness of his life-giving his family and friends an opportunity to say a meaningful goodbye.

I believe it is both crucial and beneficial to give people the opportunity to have their own celebration of life for loved ones, especially when they have struggled with not having the funeral ritual they wanted.

Saying a Meaningful Goodbye

Although there are many differences, celebrations of life, memorial services, funerals or other ceremonies or rituals are all designed with one common purpose; namely, to allow those whose lives were touched by the deceased to show their respect, and share memories of meaningful associations. Such a ceremony provides a remembrance of the person’s achievements, relationships and the good things they brought into the world, as well as gather support and comfort from others.

But, you may ask, HOW? Let me offer a simple, practical strategy as to what you can do to have meaningful celebrations of life.

First, here is the most important consideration in your planning: It’s YOUR agenda. You need to decide what you feel would be appropriate and meaningful. Following are some important elements to consider:

  1. a) “Why?” is a good place to start. A celebration of life can help people come together to acknowledge that this life was meaningful regardless of the circumstances of the death. If you were unhappy or displeased with the necessary restrictions that affected how you said goodbye during the difficult COVID situation, there are alternatives, which we will discuss. It is never too late to have a meaningful goodbye, and many reasons why we should. Such a ceremony enables everyone to begin the healing process.
  2. b) “When?” Maybe in the summer or a different season; on a significant date like a birthday (which is always a celebration of life!); or a convenient weekend if out-of-town guests are expected. Invite and encourage the input and ideas of family, friends and those who would like to be involved as well as suggest a few convenient dates before settling on arrangements.
  3. c) “Where?” This is often determined by the number of people invited or expected. Many funeral professionals offer events at their Reception Centres, providing all the necessary components. Having someone else look after these services will lessen your workload in preparation for the event.
  4. d) “Who?” While most funeral services are open to the public, celebrations of life are usually by invitation. Immediate family is a good place to start; then consider more distant relatives. Next make a list of friends from different chapters of the person’s life: friends from childhood, school, different jobs and different locations. Don’t forget to include your support network as well. You can send traditional invitations. Social media word of mouth is also a great tool. You might want to ask for an RSVP to facilitate numbers for catering and other considerations.
  5. e) “What?” and “How?” This encompasses practical elements such as eulogies, telling the story of the life and the death, music and readings, photos or videos of remembrance, and many other components.

Remember it is your agenda. It’s what you feel will help people realize that, yes we are sad about the death, but we are so thankful for the life. But also remember that this ceremony is not FOR the deceased, it is ABOUT the deceased. The celebration is FOR those who want to celebrate a life, say goodbye and begin to move on.

The most memorable events are meaningful because they capture the unique life and personality of the deceased. What were the individual’s religious or spiritual beliefs? What were their distinctive qualities? What were they passionate about? What words come to mind when people think of the individual?

Practical Components:

Leader and Host

Who will lead the proceedings as the host, MC or facilitator? This can be a clergyperson, a celebrant or a family member or friend who has some experience in leading a meeting. Someone needs to be “in charge,” structuring the event and facilitating a smooth and effective passage through all the components

Eulogies and Tributes

If people are invited to give a eulogy or share stories, the following guidelines will be useful:

  • Be Brief. Make five to 10 minutes the guideline … people lose interest after that time.
  • Be Focused. If there are several speakers, suggest each one cover a specific time or area of the person’s life: significant relationships; professional history; interests and achievements; or examples of their humour, compassion or involvements.
  • Be Personal. The best eulogies tell stories of notable qualities, passions or characteristics, and share personal illustrations or favourite memories.
  • Be Positive and Utilize Humour. Laughter can be a pivot point in a ceremony. We all know that no one is perfect, and if you speak of them with humour, relating an endearing story that captures their human side, people will laugh, smile or nudge each other, and you will know you have captured the essence of the person … their humanity … allowing everyone to remember and celebrate that life.
  • Write it Out. A written eulogy read by someone else can give family and friends an opportunity to make feelings and memories known without the emotional ordeal of having to stand up in front of others to speak.
  • Open Invitation to Share. Often, an opportunity is given to people who would like to say something. This can be meaningful, but also dangerous! I have attended such occasions where people said something that was inappropriate, or an attempt at humour was misunderstood. The facilitator should ask those who wish to come forward to line up, which gives the opportunity to “weed out” those who could be inappropriate or even under the influence of alcohol. While we do not want to deny anyone the chance to speak, we want to ensure that everything is done in a way that is appropriate to the occasion.

Music and Readings

Music, appropriate readings or poems will add to the celebration for everyone attending. Selecting music that was special to your loved one is comforting and inspiring. If a friend or family member is a musician, they may want to perform or sing. The funeral director will have a list of professional musicians or DJs who could be hired for the occasion. Just by using Google, you can choose prayers, readings, poems or song lyrics. Also choose the reader or readers to present them. Children can often be involved in this capacity

Pictures and Videos

Most funeral directors have the capability to display photos and present videos. They can also provide picture boards and creative ideas for visual tributes including memorial books. Make the decision a collective one when selecting photos or videos.

Some families choose to webcast the event, which allows people unable to physically attend to participate in the service.

Food, Flowers and Function

Most funeral homes can help with the reception, offering food and beverages of your choice, as well as flowers, decorations and even accepting memorial donations. There are multiple things to consider, and it is a huge advantage to deal with a facility that offers “one-stop shopping.”

Personalize the Event

Personalizing the event can range from simple to elaborate, and can be accomplished by a few people or by everyone attending. Choose a “theme” based on the person’s interests, whether sports, music or other involvements. A table displaying personal memorabilia helps people remember the departed in personal ways.

If all this seems overwhelming, consider approaching an expert. There are companies that organize complete celebrations of life, and firms that produce memory books, personalized event programs and many other resources.


The COVID pandemic has been difficult for everyone, some admittedly far more than others. The loss of a loved one is tough at the best of times, but even more complicated when families are unable to have the funeral they wanted. Perhaps something feels “unfinished.”

Believe me, I know the therapeutic value of a meaningful goodbye in my own experience, even though in the circumstances that ceremony had to be some time after my son died.

I hope this article will give you some ideas for the possibilities of having your own celebration of life for someone you loved.

Dr. Bill Webster provides comprehensive grief support on his website at