'The Long Goodbye': A Syllabus For Modern Mourning After poet and critic Meghan O'Rourke's mother died of cancer at 55, she worked through her grief by writing. Her memoir combines the "exquisitely personal" with research of other cultures' mourning rituals that don't ignore suffering.


Book Reviews

'The Long Goodbye': A Syllabus For Modern Mourning

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
The Long Goodbye
By Meghan O'Rourke
Hardcover, 320 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

Meghan O'Rourke opens her memoir, The Long Goodbye, with a quote from Iris Murdoch: "The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved." Though certainly O'Rourke identified with the line, the book that follows proves she took it as a challenge — an assertion to disprove, not one to affirm. And O'Rourke is up to the task; all she does is communicate — with emotional immediacy and relentless candor.

The Long Goodbye, which chronicles her mother's cancer and eventual death, is based on a series of essays O'Rourke wrote in early 2009 for Slate, where she worked in the past as a cultural critic. In these original posts, she poetically situates her own grief within a larger examination of mourning rituals in contemporary American life, or rather the lack of mourning rituals in contemporary American life. She envies her Jewish friends who sit shiva and wonders why certain co-workers refuse to ask how she's doing. "Although our culture has become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction," she writes, "grief seemed to me like the last taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent." It becomes immediately clear that the book itself is a mourning ritual, the writing process one that summons sweet memories, forces unfair questions, and provokes difficult introspection.

O'Rourke writes specifically about her own grief while never failing to concede how relatively unremarkable it is. "If the condition of grief is nearly universal," she posits, "its transactions are exquisitely personal." There are particulars that make her situation acutely painful: that she still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up, so it is all but impossible not to be bombarded with memories each time she steps out the door; that her mother was only in her 50s when she died; that in the midst of mourning, her marriage disintegrated. O'Rourke admits to her own erratic behavior in the months that followed the trauma: she was exhausted by the smallest of tasks; she found it impossible to wash the dishes or her own hair. "One of the ideas I've clung to most of my life," she writes, "is that if I just try hard enough it will work out." The death of her mother — the very figure who "is beyond any notion of a beginning" — proves her mantra wrong.

Though effort is no antidote, she does steep herself in the remedies with which she's familiar — books: scientific reports, academic studies, prose, poetry. The index at the memoir's end proves just how organically conceived and personally curated her reading-cure really was.

Grief, as O'Rourke relays it, starts to appear similar to other superlative experiences: "The old words about genuine emotions no longer sounded sentimental or trivial or bankrupt." This newfound appreciation of tired phrases is an awe not exclusive to the bereaved. It's also how it feels to be in love or in intense physical pain or dire fear. For O'Rourke, a person who reads and writes and edits and emotes for a living, such experiences are surely unsettling; they expose the power that feeling has over language; they reveal that a distaste for cliche is often little more than inexperience.

Meghan O'Rourke is the author of Halflife, a book of poetry, and is a contributing writer for Slate. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Sarah Shatz hide caption

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Sarah Shatz

With her ear for double entendres and eye for aesthetic lapses, O'Rourke is able to narrate her months of mourning with wry wit and charming perception. Like the doctors with whom she confers outside her mother's hospital room, O'Rourke notes that she too is a "pain specialist." In a moment of tacit indignation, she observes that "[a]ll the nurses wore green 'animal' scrubs. One nurse's were papered with pastel fish, another's with rabbits." Infuriated, she thinks to herself, "We are not children."

A former poetry editor at The Paris Review and the author of a best-selling poetry collection herself, O'Rourke is perhaps the most qualified person to write a book such as The Long Goodbye. She is able to articulate overwhelming emotions in concrete terms, like when she compares the visceral denial of death — what psychiatrists call "numbing out" — to the early stages of hypothermia: "It was like when you stay in cold water too long. You know something is off but you don't start shivering for ten minutes"

The Long Goodbye might be marketed as a memoir and written in an unflinching first-person voice, but it's just as much a historical account of mourning rituals and a polemic against a society that sequesters its sufferers. Though surely written as therapy, it's a book that operates like a syllabus. It shows not only how to heal but also how to help.

Excerpt: 'The Long Goodbye'

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
The Long Goodbye
By Meghan O'Rourke
Hardcover, 320 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List Price: $25.95



My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer shortly before three p.m. on Christmas Day of 2008. I don't know the exact time of her death, because none of us thought to look at a clock for a while after she stopped breathing. She was at home in Connecticut in a hospital bed in the living room with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we had begun to move her less and less, despite cautions from the nurses about bedsores. A bedsore wasn't going to kill her.

For several weeks before her death, my mother had experienced confusion from the ammonia that built up in her brain as her liver began to fail. Yet I am irrationally confident that she knew what day it was when she died. I believe that she knew we were around her. I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year. She adored the morning ritual of walking the dogs and making coffee while we waited impatiently for her to be ready; she taught us to open presents slowly, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. On that last day, her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us. Her hair was swept up behind her, and she looked like the mother of my earliest memories.

Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. And because my mother was relatively young — fifty-five — I feel robbed of twenty years with her I'd always imagined having.

I know this may sound melodramatic. I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the last year of her illness, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn't sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn't go to work and apologized for not being a "mother" anymore. I grew to love her in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.

Knowing that I was one of the lucky ones didn't make it much easier.

In the months that followed my mother's death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief. Nothing seemed important. Daily tasks were exhausting. Dishes piled in the sink, knives crusted with strawberry jam. At one point I did not wash my hair for ten days. I felt that I had abruptly arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday.

Restless and heavily sad, I would walk through my quiet Brooklyn neighborhood at night, looking in the windows of houses decorated with Christmas lights and menorahs, and think that I could more easily imagine myself floating up into the darkness of the night sky than living in one of those rooms like one of those people. I am a transient in the universe, I thought. Why had I not known that this was what life really amounted to? I was not entirely surprised to find that being a mourner was lonely. But I was surprised to discover that I felt lost. In the days following my mother's death, I did not know what I was supposed to do, nor, it seemed, did my friends and colleagues, especially those who had never suffered a similar loss. Some sent flowers but did not call for weeks. One friend launched into fifteen minutes of small talk when she saw me, before asking how I was, as if we had to warm up before diving into the churning, dangerous waters of grief. Others sent worried e-mails a few weeks later, signing off: "I hope you're doing well." It was a kind sentiment, but it made me angry. I was not "doing well." And I found no relief in that worn-out refrain that at least my mother was "no longer suffering."

Mainly, I thought one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I wanted her back so intensely that I didn't want to let go.

At least, not yet.

Excerpted from The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke. Copyright 2011 by Meghan O'Rourke. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead. All rights reserved.