4 tips on saying goodbye and working through grief : Life Kit Saying goodbye can be tough, especially if you're parting ways for good. But grief counselor and patient advocate Isabel Stenzel Byrnes says the art of saying goodbye to loved ones can be learned and practiced.

4 tips for saying goodbye to someone you love

4 tips for saying goodbye to someone you love

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Steel scissors cut Monarch butterfly from a white piece of paper, symbolizing saying goodbye.
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Isabel Stenzel Byrnes has spent her entire life practicing goodbyes.

Byrnes, a grief counselor and patient advocate, and her identical twin sister, Anabel Stenzel, were both born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive disease that damages the lungs, pancreas and other organs. It's a condition that significantly reduced their life expectancy and meant many hospital visits.

But the illness also gave the sisters and best friends a unique perspective. "We both were afraid of death, but we also shared a joint passion for life, knowing that our time could be limited," says Byrnes. "We knew from an early age that one of us would die first, and we actually practiced that."

Readying themselves for that final goodbye was a big part of their shared existence – whether that meant making separate friends or entertaining different interests. And yet, when Anabel died in 2013 from cancer, Isabel's grief loomed large.

Isabel Stenzel Byrnes (left) and her identical twin sister Anabel (Ana) Stenzel at a film screening of their film "The Power of Two" taken in 2011. Ana died of cancer in 2013 when Isa was a hospice grief counselor. Twin Triumph Productionis hide caption

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Twin Triumph Productionis

"The complete separation of someone as close as my twin was very difficult," she says, "but I pursued things that made me feel closer to her, and I also strengthened my relationships with friends and family, and that really helped me dig myself out of the hole of grief."

Now, through her work, Byrnes helps others with the hardships that can come with saying goodbye to loved ones for good.

She shared some advice with Life Kit on the art of thoughtfully saying goodbye – be it a, "See ya later," a final farewell or one of the many shades of parting in between.

"Recognize the role" of the person you're parting from

If you want a goodbye to be impactful, offer more than just a generic "Good luck on your future endeavors" or "Thanks for the memories!" Byrnes says no matter how weak or strong a relationship, any goodbye is more meaningful when you take the time to "articulate the value" of that person.

Were they your most trusted colleague? A reliable neighbor? The friend you could always count on for a laugh? Be open and specific about how someone has impacted you, and thank them for the role they played in your life.

Embrace your emotions, then let them go

When processing the grief of separation, Byrnes says it's important not to judge your emotions. "Saying goodbye naturally evokes really intense emotions," she says – and that's OK. If you're feeling big feelings, that might speak to "the enormity of the loss and the love that [you've] experienced."

Allow those feelings to come — and also, to go. "Because none of us can cry 24/7," she says.

"We cry, we let it out, and then somehow we end up maybe even talking and laughing. That's all part of the process." And then, over time, she says, work to let go of emotions that cost you energy or no longer serve you – things like guilt, anger or envy. Work to remember that person with more love than pain.

Practice goodbye rituals

Not everyone gets the luxury of saying goodbye face-to-face, or in real-time or at all. But Byrnes says saying goodbye is also an internal and symbolic process. Even if you can't speak directly to the person you're saying goodbye to, it's still important to recognize and honor how that person made an impression on you.

Light a candle, write a letter, add an artifact to your ancestral altar or spend a solitary afternoon on the beach. Choose for yourself what ritual best serves you, and then make the time to commemorate that relationship.

Saying goodbye well takes practice

A well-crafted goodbye takes time and care – that's not always easy. Byrnes says to keep trying anyway. "Authentic, intimate conversation can sometimes be very awkward if you haven't done that before," she says. "But really living in the awkwardness, feeling uncomfortable, but doing it anyway is what helps us grow as human beings."

Though often uncomfortable or difficult, getting familiar with farewells can serve a powerful purpose.

"The other side of the coin of saying goodbye is learning how to love stronger and harder, knowing that a goodbye can come at some point in time."

Hear more advice on the art of saying goodbye in the podcast episode at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Sign up for the Life Kit newsletter here.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Meghan Keane. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.