The long goodbye

Ruth Ostrow: live each day as if it’s your last Illustration: Sturt Krygsman.

  • The Australian, 

Recently I was away with a group of people I love, to celebrate one of our achievements. It was like a weekend from the movie The Big Chill, where people who love each other gather to laugh, cry, sit up all night and sing, break bread, drink and share the memories of the old times.

We talked about our lives, our kids, marriage, what we feared for, what we still yearned for. We talked about our childhoods together. I was feeling secure, warm and happy by the log fire; drinking a glass of mulled wine with orange. The joy was so palpable as to almost hurt. And then someone spoke the words people never speak into a room.

“And so begins the long goodbye …” she said in a melancholic whisper. We each stopped and stared at each other. We are at the age now where people we know are starting to die. Which one of us would go first, how? When does the grieving start? It was a moment frozen in time, horrible because of the truth of it. We are a group of somewhat spiritually aware people, who all do our meditations and live without denial, yet we were still as shaken as if we’d never contemplated this reality.

It’s in the room all the time, of course, when we are with close friends, a parent, loved ones. We know we must leave or they must leave. But we keep the thoughts muffled, distracting ourselves by running into the kitchen to get food or filling someone’s glass; even an argument can suffice to blot out the uncomfortable feelings coming in to consciousness. When loss happens and we have to deal with it, we pretend it will never happen again, like the measles: “Good that grieving is finally over.” The idea of endless losses is too much to bear.

“I wonder how it will happen? How will we all go?” ventured one friend. “I hope it isn’t cancer or some disease,” said one. Someone disagreed, “I’d rather have time to say my goodbyes than bang … gone!” I had to speak. “Perhaps there’s a way of having both — a quick, painless death but having treated each day as our last, saying all we need to say in the moment, resolving conflicts and treasuring those we love?”

“That’s a great idea. You clearly don’t have my mother or brother,” someone piped in.

It was all so confronting. Because really, the long goodbye happens from the moment we are born. We never know how or when we will die. Practitioners of Eastern philosophy have a saying: “Keep death as a friend, always on your shoulder.” It’s a valuable reminder of the preciousness of now.



Andrew OCT 11, 2015
Must be stressful trying to live each day as if it is your last.

It won’t matter when you are dead.

The Other Andrew
Valerie OCT 10, 2015
My daughter. In her mid fifties deals with this in a beautiful way. At least twice a year her closest women friends have a few days away together. They wine and dine. They exchange family news. Sometimes holidaying in Australia. Sometimes overseas. The group has already grown smaller. The dreaded “Big One” has stolen two of them already. This does not diminish them. They derive strength, courage and wisdom from each other. They are ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Helen OCT 10, 2015
Thank you for raising this topic. They are conversations we all need to have, rather than sweeping them under the carpet and pretend dying is not part of the journey of life.


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