Saying Goodbye, Part 4

Saying Goodbye, Part 4

If I die with much anger and bitterness, I will leave my family and friends behind in confusion, guilt, shame, or weakness. Henri Nouwen[1]

My Uncle Jim was larger than life to me. He married my father’s sister, Maxine, about the time I was born, so I knew him my entire life. He was a Texan through and through, with all the bravado and bluster one would expect from a native Texan who descended from native Texans. He commanded a room with his presence, and his slow, Texas drawl was easily identifiable from across seemingly any distance. And I loved him dearly.

Although he and Aunt Maxine lived 7 hours south of us, we saw them frequently. Uncle Jim’s work brought him into northeast Kansas every month or two, and he and Aunt Maxine would stay with us for a few days while he worked his territory. They were like another set of parents to Carrie and me, as well as being another set of grandparents to our children. Whenever they were with us, they joined us in whatever we were doing – children’s concerts or sporting events, church, and gatherings with friends. When Uncle Jim came to visit he firmly inserted himself into our family life and none of us would have it any other way.

Uncle Jim was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and it took his life in September 2018 following a steady decline in his vitality. My wife, son, and I went to see him a few weeks before he passed, knowing it would our last visit on this side of the grave. A week or so before our trip, I heard Richard Rohr share the five things we should say to those we love before they or we die. I knew that would be my template for saying goodbye to my beloved Uncle Jim. I also knew it would be difficult.

He was in his pajamas, sitting in a wheelchair in his family room when the three of us entered for our visit. He tired easily and could not speak above a whisper, so the visit was short. As I sensed it was time to leave, I knelt before his wheelchair and began. “Uncle Jim, I know I haven’t always been the best nephew to you, but if there is anything I have done that needs forgiveness, please forgive me.” I was crying before I could get the words out, as was he. He waved me off as if it were ridiculous to think there was anything between us needing forgiveness. I skipped the second statement, “I forgive you,” for the same reason. In my heart there was nothing from him needing my forgiveness. Next, I thanked him for being such an awesome uncle, for stepping in as a surrogate father after my dad’s death, for being such fun company, for being another grandfather to our children, and for the blessing of his presence for as long as I could remember. I told him I loved him and that I would miss him. I said “Goodbye,” wiped the tears from my eyes, kissed him on the forehead, and rejoined my cousins in the dining room while Carrie and Reid said their goodbyes.

I think about and miss Uncle Jim often. Having that final conversation with him did not miraculously heal him, at least not physically, nor did it erase my sadness over losing him. I believe that conversation was of immense help in my grieving process, however, because it allowed me to let him go without regrets and with no loose ends. He was not a perfect man, but at least to me, his imperfections fell quickly away after his death. In our goodbye there was mutual forgiveness, there was thanksgiving, there was love and appreciation expressed, and there was closure. I am convinced that is the best we can hope for whenever we lose someone we love. God knows, losing one we love is hard enough as it is.

There is nothing but joy and gratitude in my memories of Uncle Jim because there was nothing standing between us as he passed – no unresolved hurts and no unexpressed affection or appreciation. While I wish this could be true for all of us whenever we lose a loved one, I know that is not the case – not for me and not for you. Many circumstances do not allow for the type of goodbye I had with Uncle Jim. I will consider some of those situations next week as I close this discussion on Saying Goodbye.

This is the 55th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved, The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust, Convergent Books, 2017.

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