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The Beautiful Melancholy of Goodbye and GRATITUDE

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

That moment when you find a foreign word/concept that expresses something so complex, so deep and so genuine, yet you've never found quite the right word for it in your native tongue...

My husband and I recently went to a local pub for a bon voyage party for our longtime friends who are moving to Europe. We’ve watched their daughter grow up from a wide-eyed 2nd grader to a smart, successful young woman. We’ve been a part of their family gatherings and holidays and they’ve been a part of ours. We’ve even traveled with them on multiple occasions, in the US, France, Turkey, Japan (twice).

Three people sitting on tatami mats looking out over a Japanese gardem
At Sanzenin Temple • Ohara, Japan

I’m very happy for them and excited for this next adventure they are embarking on. Yet, despite the festive nature of that bon voyage party and the room full of their friends and work colleagues from over the years, it finally sank in that this isn’t just a winter sun-seeking trip or an extended vacation. This time they sold their house, got their visa, packed their belongings and were about to move an ocean away.

As I wished them farewell, I felt my eyes welling up with tears. And when I hugged my dear friend — a woman I’ve known for more than 20 years — the well finally overflowed. This was really happening. And I could see her eyes were beginning to tear up as well. They still had a lot of people there and I didn’t want to make a scene, so I quickly wiped the tears away, put on a smile and reminded them that we’ll be coming over to visit some time. I ducked out the door and headed for the car. My husband had to catch up with me.

That evening and on into the next morning I again found myself — at entirely random moments — feeling overcome with emotion, the melancholy of saying goodbye, the feeling of loss tinged with self-pity. This time I acknowledged it and I let myself experience the emotion fully. And when I did so, my heart began to feel something else as well. Something more expansive. Something warm and enveloping. Something beautiful. It was GRATITUDE.

How fortunate I am to have a friendship of such depth and love that I feel sad at the very notion of being distant from them!

Mono no aware...

So lovely, this amazing experience of melancholy and profound gratitude at the same time. I lacked the words to adequately describe what I was feeling. When I went for a walk later that morning with my husband, I tried. And he told me he had just read a passage that talked about the Japanese sense of mono no aware. As he described it, I realized it perfectly captured what I was feeling. I later found this great description from Oxford Dictionaries:

Mono no aware: “…A pathos engendered by a sense of the fleeting nature of life. This gentle sadness accompanied by a sense of the transitory nature of beauty lies at the heart of Japanese culture. Accepting this impermanence can lead to a sense of joy in the present moment, however insubstantial it may be, and even a recognition that beauty and intransience [sic] are two parts of a whole.”

And this description from positive psychology researcher Tim Lomas:

“…There is still sadness present in mono no aware, a sorrow at this transiency, of the loss of people and things that are precious to us. However, this melancholy is suffused with a quiet rejoicing in the fact that we had the chance to witness the beauty of life at all, however fleetingly.”


Then I felt a sense of profound gratitude for my husband, who is not only a voracious reader who manages to retain most of what he reads, but also an incredibly wise and sensitive human being who has a knack for pulling out exactly the right word when I need it. I also felt gratitude for having had the opportunity to travel in Japan enough to have tapped into a few nuances of that culture and developed a deep appreciation for its facility in coming up with concepts like mono no aware (and wabi-sabi, shinrinyoku and komorebi) — see 15 Japanese words that English needs.

At the core of gratitude is grace. And while I know I will miss my friends, I also feel my life has been graced by their presence in it. And I know that any friendship with so much love and gratitude tied up in it will thrive, regardless of the miles between us.

Originally published 29 July 2019


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