How to (Not) Say Goodbye

Liana Meffert, MD


June 01, 2022

Let's face it — we had no spring this year, at least not here in Iowa. I know that summer started this week because my building's a/c isn't working, and things are starting to get uncomfortable. The trash smells, and yesterday my roommate set off her fire alarm; I told her it was because of how hot it was. That's probably not true, but my property management company can take the heat.

It's a fact of life. The more you move, the more you say goodbye. I'm graduating medical school this week. Today I slipped five letters under the five office doors of those who have helped me most. Let my words say goodbye. Let them fall short; they are only words, after all.

Leaving goes like this: Grab your last dinner at the place you will miss the most. Raid your wallet for coupons and gift cards, and those buy-10-burritos-get-one-free cards that you only have two punches in; throw that away. Find two out of three of the keys to your apartment and know that definitely, finally, and for sure, the fob key is not making an appearance. 

The longer you stay, the harder it is to say goodbye. Combine that with moving and other major life transitions like graduating and starting a job, and there is an emotional tidal wave of fear and excitement ready to knock you over. Don't go there. Say goodbye to a park, but don't let it be your favorite. Pack things, not memories. Give away anything that doesn't fit, and don't ask for a cent.

I'm ready for that moving truck to come and for getting swept up in handling the minutiae of the day, like wondering where to drop off the mailbox keys and commencing the mind-bending task of fitting larger possessions in impossibly small spaces.

For extra credit, you can do this to your feelings, too. Take the large, cumbersome sadness of displacement and shove it into the smaller sadness of breaking your last (yes, your last) cereal bowl. You can do it with brute force, or try the sleeping bag stuffing tactic of shoving it in one handful at a time until there's just that bit left hanging like a tongue.

These are the questions I have for you: How do you honor the person you've become in the place you're leaving? Honor each place, decision, fortuity, or person that made that path or kept you on it. Or the pavement in the neighborhood you walked nearly every day for 4 years, all those thoughts and weather. How do you say goodbye to cement?

And how do you know when you are done saying goodbye? How many goodbyes are enough — for a place, a person, a feeling you might not feel again. Are goodbyes equivalent in quality, and, if so, does that quality diminish in proportion to the number of goodbyes that are dispensed?

The window unit I bought to survive this heat is so loud that it's hard to think. I go to the next room to find something and stand in there for 5 minutes searching — for what? What is it that I want? There are so many possibilities.

We started saying goodbye in the 1500s. Before that, it was "God be with ye," which is longer to say and probably too politically charged for this climate anyway. One day a man writes a letter to his friend and signs it "godbwye" and through the contortionist act that is the English language, goodbye was born. What began as a blessing now feels like an all-encompassing request. Let this farewell be glad. How simple. How impossible.

Iowa, this is my not-goodbye that I am packing. Excuse me while I don't get sentimental. Your cornfields and ungodly gusts of wind; iridescent trees that flower like they alone are responsible for all that is bright and beautiful in the world, one of which (I'm not naming names solely because I can't) smells distinctly of rotting fish; your flat plains like a Botoxed smile; how you turn water to ice just by looking at it.

Sometimes you are everything I ever wanted to be: powerful, unnerving, unwaveringly capricious. And then sometimes the wind stills so the stalks of corn stand straight-backed, and everything starts to look like itself, like the state got one stamp and stamped it a billion times over its earth, and like hordes of parents, ogled the same fair-skinned, blue-eyed boy, and thought how cute and then, "I'll have one just like that." And they did.

So, no, it's not goodbye. I'm not packing memories, and the only signs that I was here at all are the kinds that mean I'm not getting my security deposit back.

When you think about it, there are a lot of goodbyes in medicine, too. Each patient who passes through my ED doors this summer will leave, most never to return. I'm practicing my not-goodbyes. In a hospital, it's hard to know when you will say goodbye, and it's a disconcerting practice for doctors to be liberal with their farewells while death and his scythe stand so near.

Maybe it's best to say goodbye as I go, put attach and detach in the same sentence, so when the moving truck comes, the patient discharges, or worse, it's just another box to load and unload on my time. Here is for the kitchen, here is compassion, here is for remorse and grace, the living room and room for the living, another room for the death and forgiveness. It's better than existing in the liminal space that is goodbye, that uncomfortable knowledge that what you have now will be taken like anything else you could never own. 

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About Liana Meffert

Liana Meffert recently graduated from the University of Iowa College of Medicine and is an emergency medicine resident physician at MedStar Georgetown/Washington Hospital Center. She has previously been awarded an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, Stanford's Irvin David Yalom Literary Award, University of Iowa's Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Award, and the F. Sean Hodge Prize for Poetry in Medicine. Her writing has been featured in JAMA, The Examined Life Journal, and The Healing Muse , among other publications. You can find more of her work at


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