In 2008, on Christmas Day, Meghan O’Rourke’s mother, Barbara, died after a two-and-a-half-year battle with advanced colorectal cancer. O’Rourke was lost in her grief, which she found overwhelming and unlike anything she had ever experienced. Her book, The Long Goodbye, is her attempt to understand her grief, documenting the years before and after her mother’s passing. In reading The Long Goodbye, I braced myself for the tears (which, yes, did come) but, by its end, discovered that O’Rourke had written a beautiful memoir about a daughter’s love for her mother. We spoke recently about her book; an edited version of our conversation appears below.
How did this book come about?
I started writing things down, for myself, before my mother died. It was a private recording of what was happening. Writing has always been the primary way I make sense of the world. My mother was going through this really intense experience: she had been sick, she had been diagnosed with advanced cancer two years before she died, and she went into a remission that was unusual. Then the cancer came back—it went to her brain, which again was not common for the cancer that she had. It was bizarre to see someone change so radically and so quickly; I had to write it down in order to not go crazy with the strangeness of it all.
After my mother died, I was supposed to be writing my column at Slate, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I had thought of grief as being sad, but instead it was like being suddenly aware of all the luminous, fragile elements of existence. It was also lonely in its way. My editor at Slate said, “Why don’t you write about what you are going through.” I didn’t think what happened to me was extraordinary. But it was what I was obsessed with, and so I started to shape what I was experiencing into a piece.
I was very unprepared for grief. It was isolating. There was no language for it, and no language around it—but I felt that I was in contact with all of these deeper realities; even the sky seemed strangely bluer. But there is a discomfort that surrounds grief. It makes even the most well-intentioned people unsure of what to say. And so many of the freshly bereaved end up feeling even more alone. I came across a quote of Iris Murdoch’s: “The bereaved have no language with which to speak with the unbereaved.” I thought, What if you could find a language that would describe the experience, with all its mysteries?
In your book you describe the five stages of grief as conceived by Elizabeth Kübler-Roth: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Why do you think her theory has such a strong grip on our culture’s understanding of grief?
Stage theory took hold in the late sixties and early seventies. That was a time when there was even more silence surrounding death and dying—patients in hospitals often wouldn’t be told they were dying. I think the idea took hold because it gave shape to this experience that is so strange and destabilizing. I don’t want to make all grief sound the same, but there is an intense grief that can shake your sense of identity, and when you are in the depths of it you don’t know when it is ever going to end. Stage theory made it teleological, made it end-oriented.
But I think this is fiction. Grief is characterized much more by waves of feeling that lessen and reoccur, it’s less like stages and more like different states of feeling.
And why is stage theory not accurate?
Kübler-Ross, to her credit, never meant to use the stages to describe the bereaved. She didn’t study grief in a very systematic way; she talked to people in hospitals. When psychiatrists began to study grief more empirically, they found that Kübler-Ross had indeed named many of the emotions that people experience. But we don’t experience depression for three months and then anger for three months in tidy sequence. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, the first predominant emotion that people experience isn’t denial, which is Kübler-Ross’s first stage, but yearning or nostalgia. When I discovered this fact, that was the first moment when I thought, Oh I am not crazy; acute nostalgia is exactly what I am experiencing.
I thought it was really beautiful when you described those sharp moments where you miss you mother, as if you’re catching your breath. It sounded like being in love.
I am so glad you said that. I think the book is not just about grief or sadness, but about love. It’s a family romance; it is a book about loving my mother, and mothers and daughters. When my mother first died I thought, But I love her, and I am not ready to heal because I love her and part of what I am feeling is love. In this one regard (if not in others) it’s similar to what you might feel after a breakup. You are still missing the person, and though everyone around you wants you to move on, you can’t do it right away. And nor should you—you have to go through a process of readjusting to the world.
You created a word to describe your situation: “unmothered.” Can you explain that?
I started thinking about language that could describe this experience that, in some ways, is indescribable. One word I had throughout the first year and a half of my mother’s death was unmoored. I felt that I had no anchor, that I had no home in the world. I also kept having this image of a portal in the sky, like in a Star Trek movie. I was like Captain Kirk, trapped in this alien world that I couldn’t escape. It looked like my world but wasn’t. It was an eerie feeling.
About a year and a half after she died, there was a sea change where I suddenly felt much more like myself. I had my energy back, and my curiosity about the world back. I had also gotten used to my mother not being in the world. She had always been a big influence on my decisions; she was part of my process of dealing with the day-to-day. I realized that I going to spend the rest of my life without her. As time went on, I was less unmoored but I was all the more unmothered.
You write, “I sit here in my tiny study, bills dropped on the floor, books piling by my desk—Death and Western Thought, Death’s Door, The Denial of Death, This Republic of Suffering—believing in some primitive form of my brain that if I read them all, if I learn everything there is to know I will solve the problem. I will find the answer to the equation.” How did this method help you and how did it not?
I think it helped me by giving me the illusion of control. It gave me something to do. I was thinking about my mother constantly and thinking about death constantly, and so to do other things felt false. To be able to read about death and study it let me do what I was obsessing over in a way that felt constructive. Writing the book was the same thing. It’s as if you are walking on a cliff and someone put a guyline up on a little post: it’s not going to stop you from falling over the cliff but it stops you from getting that dizzy vertigo. It was difficult to come to the end of the book and to realize it was time to let go and move on. I saw that I had become obsessed with reading about loss and grief when maybe I should have spent more time being more social. On the other hand, clearly I dealt with my mother’s death by throwing myself into reading and writing. I don’t think that I could have done it any other way.
I really like that moment where you Google grief.
I felt I was fifteen again. At that age, you’re like, Who should I be? Who am I? Everything is cause for anxiety. It was so weird to be thirty-two and to think that everyone else has it figured out and I have Popsicle sticks. But that was what it felt like.