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Leaving Well – How to Say Goodbye

I feel resistance and dread just writing the title to this post. Do you know the feeling? Just the thought of farewells makes me want to run in the opposite direction, hope it all goes away and comes right in the end. But therein lies the crux of it. If we don’t make it right, it won’t go away and we will take that uncomfortable feeling with us, wherever we go next. Leaving well frees us to arrive well at our next destination. Leaving well can make more happy memories to carry us through the coming rough patches. Leaving well can mean you look back on all the wonderful people you spent time with and the exciting places you visited and really cherish the experience. Leaving well gives you and your friends closure. Leaving may look different this year than at any time before but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

Building a RAFT

Much has been written about saying good-bye. I have said many farewells, in many different ways and I find thinking of building a RAFT, as described in the book Third Culture Kids (David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Renken, Michael V. Pollock, 2017, Third Culture Kids, Boston, MA, Nicholas Brearly Publishing) to be one of the most helpful ways to get through it all.

The model suggests lashing four “logs” together to build a raft to ride on for healthy closure:

R: Reconciliation. Don’t leave with unresolved tension and discontent.

A: Affirmation. Let people know you respect and appreciate them.

F: Farewells. Saying goodbye is important to not have regrets later. More on this below.

T: Think Destination. Even in the middle of going we need to focus some attention on the future and preparation for what is coming next. I will discuss this in a future post in more detail. (If you are leaving anytime soon, especially if you are returning to your “home country”, you might enjoy the webinar I’m giving in June)

Last hike on the Great Wall
Last night out in Beijing

Planning your Goodbyes

Our most recent farewell was in August 2019 when our family left Beijing to repatriate to Germany. There are always many people, places and possessions, as well as experiences and food to “say” goodbye to when you leave a place you have spent any amount of time in. As the children were old enough to truly experience this farewell, we included them in our planning.

Yes, we planned our goodbyes. I am a firm believer in lists and if ever there is a time for planning and scheduling, this is it because life gets crazy when you’re on the move.

People, Places, Pets, Food

Everyone in the family needs to be included in compiling a list of people they want to say goodbye to. This includes teachers, coaches, classmates, friends, work colleagues, family friends, domestic helpers, and anyone else you spent time with and will miss. The next step is to decide how you want to say farewell and when. Some families find it helpful to prioritize people to say good-bye to. This sounds pretty harsh but may help you focus. I suggest scheduling events with the people dearest to you first and then seeing where you can fit the others in. An open house all-day farewell party is one way to accommodate busy acquaintances. See below for other ideas.

Places – tourist sites, favorite parks, must-see-spots-that-you-never-got-to-in-4-years, restaurants, beaches, hikes, schools, sport fields,… whatever is important to you can be included in your list of places to say good-bye to. This year this might mean just driving by to see it once more, since you can’t actually visit. Or talking about a place and the memories you made there, consciously.

If you are leaving pets behind, the whole family needs to know what will be happening to the pet. Give everyone a chance to say good-bye. If possible, stay in touch with the new owners and get updates and photos for a few weeks. It may soften the impact.

Food. A large part of the cultural experience for me is local food so I always try to enjoy my favorite dishes again before I leave a place. This too should go on the list so there are few regrets when you get on the plane and take off for your next adventure.

Farewell Parties

Here are some ways we have said our goodbyes in the past. What we chose to do at different times depended on the community we were part of in each place and what age our children were. Farewell rituals are part of every culture (think: graduation ceremonies) and you have to find what works for you and your family, also given current constraints (more on that at the end):

  • Big bash for all friends & colleagues (giving it a theme can add an element of fun to a sad occasion). Make it a potluck and save on work (sign up for News & Updates and get a list of ideas!).
  • Separate events for each child to say good-bye to their closest friends (pool parties, movie night, picnic in the park…)
  • Dinner out with individual families we were close to (also ticks the box for food farewells!)
  • Lunch with close friends. No partners, no kids.
  • Drop-in coffee morning or afternoon for people to come and go as they wish. It’s usually a busy time of year for everyone.
  • Surprise parties for friends that are leaving and haven’t organized anything.
  • Night out with colleagues.
Farewell Party, South Africa
Shared Memories


In some places it’s common to give and receive gifts when people are leaving. This falls into the category of Affirmation. There are countless ways to show others we care about and appreciate them, not all of them include a gift. Consider some things when choosing what to give: Gifts are more special, the more personal they are. A handwritten note or picture by a student will be much more meaningful to a teacher (or anyone!) than a store-bought present. A memory book where every family completes a page will be treasured a long time by another family. We have received a number of personal recipe collections over the years. They sit in our kitchen and remind us daily of friends around the world.

When choosing gifts remember transportation. How big is it? Has the container been packed already? How can it be moved? We were given a beautiful framed map of Beijing the week we left. Sadly, there was absolutely no way we could take it with us. Gift vouchers for the destination (restaurants, theme parks, museum passes, …) are popular gifts for a reason. 

You are never obligated to give a gift! If you choose to, I suggest keeping it small and personal. Something to truly remember your time together by.

What if you're staying behind?

Close friends that you have spent years with are leaving and are all caught up in their farewells and packing. But you aren’t going anywhere. Staying put and the loss and grief associated with it is seldom spoken about. When a close friend of mine moved, she left behind such a huge gap that it took me months to find my way again. If you are staying behind, be kind to yourself and prepare for the possible feelings you may experience.

Another friend had an idea that I wish I had thought of years ago. She started her own farewell book. When friends and families they are close to leave she has them write in it for herself and her family. This way she has a beautiful memory of all the people that have crossed their path over the last few years while they have stayed in one place.

Trash the Shirt

How does Social Distancing affect Goodbyes?

RAFT: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination – many of these can be done virtually or don’t require direct social contact. You can write letters, make video calls, record messages, and drop off gifts, all while respecting social distancing rules. It’s the actual, physical farewells that aren’t possible in some places. I encourage you to find creative ways to spend a last time together anyway.

  • Maybe project a favorite movie onto a blank wall and have a drive-in movie night together. Order take-away food and watch the movie together from the safety of your cars.
  • Have an “open-window” farewell where people can drop by your house and say good-bye from the street.
  • Host a zoom/skype quiz night.
  • Send recorded messages to each other of favorite memories.
  • Make a memory video for friends that are leaving. Get everyone to contribute a 60sec clip. This is a great way to include friends that have already left or can’t get back to say goodbye.
  • Drop off special treats & drinks and then hop on a video call together.

You are an expat, a global mobility pro – flexibility and creativity in dealing with new and unusual situations is what you do. I know you will find a way this time, too. Let me know how it goes.

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