How Do You Say Goodbye: Conference Version



How Do You Say Goodbye was a post originally published in 2014 (and is available on the Kindle book). It told the story of my raw reaction to the death of a beloved resident and it was also one the posts selected for the CNA Edge Opening Planery speech at Pioneer Network. As I work on memorizing and reading aloud this free-form poem, I realized two things.

1) It is probably one of my favorite pieces of  my own writing ever.

2) The version in CNA Edge: Reflections from Year One was not reading-friendly.

It was literally written on a paper towel, and the physical dimensions of the paper towel limited the number of stanzas and the lengths of each individual line. As I read it aloud, it just didn’t flow right or lend itself to patterns of speaking. I’ve always been a writer, not a speaker, so all this was a bit of a shock to me. I didn’t want to rework the poem, but I also wanted to do it justice.

So I reworked it. What follows is the version of the poem as I read it at Pioneer Networks Opening Planery earlier today…and can I just say, what an amazing experience that was! Thank you to all who were involved in inviting us, working with us and encouraging us to share our message on a new platform. You guys rock!


The hardest part about this job is losing a resident. It hurts…but you have to keep moving. And while you never really get used to it, you do learn how to handle the death of someone you’ve cared for. Writing is how I cope, putting words on paper is how I make sense of the madness and pain in my world. One time, right after the funeral home had taken the body, I just couldn’t wait. I grabbed a paper napkin out of her bathroom and jotted down what became this poem. It’s rough, but that’s alright. Raw was how I felt when I wrote this. Raw is how I feel when I remember.

A last kiss on your forehead
Still warm to the touch
But soon you’ll be cold
A last whispered “I love you”
Because it’s not just money
That is luring me here.

How do you say goodbye?
You were dying when I met you
They called it “going downhill”
Every day just a little worse
And now you’re dying no more
But how do I say goodbye?

Sponge down your body,
You shouldn’t be so still.
Wash and fold your hands
New sheets for the bed
I can’t say I’m sorry
You’re not in pain anymore

A last touch, then I’m done
And move on to the living
I can’t help you anymore.
I’ve seven other people
Who still need me today;
You’re gone and I can’t cry.

Then tomorrow is here
And you’re still gone.
A new face in your bed,
New stories to learn,
I have to keep working
And so I move on.

It’s a year down the road
And your face is fading.
I guess I’ve said goodbye.
But I sit down and cry,
Because I can’t recall
How I made your coffee.

How do you remember
Everyone you’ve ever lost?
Every quirk, every smile,
All the tears cried together.
Please, can you tell me,
How do I say goodbye?

6 thoughts on “How Do You Say Goodbye: Conference Version

  1. aortigarA

    Dear May,
    thank you for sharing this updated version of this poem, and for speaking today at the Pioneer Network Conference. You and Alice and Yang were the voice that resonated throughout that hall, challenging and inspiring me to go forward even more purposely in this movement of change. Thank you! Truly, you all really rocked!!

  2. Eileen Bennett, Montgomery County MD LTC Ombudsman

    It was so wonderful to meet you in person, spend time with you during the conference both as an audience member and participant in the sessions, and share a cab ride to the airport. Your passion, enthusiasm, and moral convictions surround your very being and I am so honored to have basked in that array of shine. Keep your thoughts flowing out loud as an inspiration for your own journey, but also to enlighten those of us who may need some reminding along the way. I hope our paths will cross again soon.

  3. freeflower19632014

    I did not attend the conference, I am reading this from Colorado Springs, CO. I am a CNA of 3 years who only 5 months ago came to LTC. The absolute hardest thing I have to do is say goodbye to my residents who have passed. Since I have been here, I have lost close to 10 residents. I am sad and afterwards I shut down and tell myself I will not get close to my residents anymore. I love your poem, thank you.

    1. May Post author

      Ellen, sometimes I’m astonished how so many unique individuals experience the same thing in such a similar way. You’re right: this is the part that sucks.
      Being willing to accept the pain that comes from caring is such an underrated act of courage. Sometimes I feel like I’m volunteering to have my heart scrapped against a cheese-grater. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy for doing it time after time. But every time I wouldn’t trade the love for all the pain.
      It’s so hard, to fight against your natural reaction to protect yourself by shutting down and not getting attached. But it’s the bravest thing anyone can do. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!
      Thank you for reading and commenting and caring! I know your folks appreciate it!


Leave a reply