The Long Goodbye by poet and literary critic Meghan O’Rourke is a beautifully written and poignant memoir about grappling with a mother’s death.
In the first of three sections, O’Rourke recounts her mother’s colon cancer diagnosis, her deterioration and eventual death on Christmas Day, 2008. Growing up in a tight-knit family with two younger brothers, O’Rourke had a very close relationship with her mother, which changes and grows deeper as she tries to support her through the disease.
The bulk of the book focuses on how O’Rourke tries to deal with her overwhelming grief (and to an extent her family’s) and how our culture mourns (or lack thereof). She also shares tender childhood memories and various slices from her life as she adjusts to life without her mom.
To help her make sense of her grief, O’Rourke turns to grief literature and research. She draws on everything from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Tennyson’s memorial for his close friend Arthur Hallam to Emily Dickinson’s “I Measure Every Grief I Meet.”
She also dispels the myth of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages and shares interesting research findings, which help readers better understand grief and how it functions. For instance, she cites Erich Lindemann’s study, the first-ever systematic survey on grief, which revealed grief’s physiological symptoms. Lindemann defined grief as:
“sensations of somatic distress reoccurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress.”
O’Rourke then adds:
The experience is, as Lindemann notes, brutally physiological. It literally takes your breath away. Its physicality is also what makes grief so hard to communicate to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
She also notes how grief washes over us in waves.
Some researchers say grief comes in waves, welling up and dominating one’s emotional life, then subsiding, only to recur—an experience I recognized as my own. As George A. Bonnano, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has written, “When we look more closely at the emotional experiences of bereaved people over time, the level of fluctuation is nothing short of spectacular.” This oscillation, he theorizes, offers relief from the stress grief creates. That made sense. I thought of one of the lines from Lewis’s A Grief Observed: “Sorrow…turns out to be not a state but a process,” he wrote. “It needs not a map but a history.”
I lost my father almost two years ago and my grandmother five years ago—devastating losses that I, too, feel in waves. I was particularly struck by the feeling that O’Rourke was writing my story, my thoughts, my anxieties. That she deeply understood my pain and, to an extent, the wounds I carry. I found comfort and solace in her ability to capture grief with such honesty and vulnerability, as I think others will.
Not surprisingly, The Long Goodbye is at times a difficult book to digest. There are many heart-wrenching parts, particularly when O’Rourke is describing her mother’s decline and passing. These are hard to read without getting emotional yourself.
What will no doubt also resonate with readers are O’Rourke’s insights on grief and mourning. Even if you haven’t experienced grief yourself, her passages will help you better grasp it. For instance, she writes of the fresh pain that her mother’s passing will bring throughout her life:
The moment when I flash upon my mother’s smile and face and realize she is dead, I experience the same lurch, the same confusion, the same sense of impossibility. A year ago collapses into yesterday in these moments. Periodically for the rest of my life, my mother’s death will seem like it took place yesterday.
In another passage, she writes about time’s inability to truly heal, contradictory to the common belief in our culture:
People kept saying to me, “It gets better at a year, doesn’t it?” Or, “I hear it gets better at a year.” It did. It got “better” in that I could go on for days without thinking too much about the fact that someone I still loved as dearly as I ever did was dead. But to expect grief to heal is to imagine that it is possible to stop loving, to reconcile yourself to the fact that the lost one is somewhere else. So heal isn’t the right word. I love C.S. Lewis’s metaphor: A loss is like an amputation. If the blood doesn’t stop gushing soon after the operation, then you will die. To survive means, by definition, that the blood has stopped. But the amputation is still there.
O’Rourke also captures the difficulty of experiencing first events without your loved one, when their absence is especially sharp and sad.
…Now, in Montauk, when the reek of saltwater and fish hit me, a wave of understanding swelled: My mother no longer exists.
…Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again: each “first” causes a break that must be reset. I knew, already, that the next time I visited the ocean, I would not be gutted like this. In this sense, my mother’s death was not a single event, but a whole series of events—the first Easter without her; the first wedding anniversary without her; the first time Eamon, who has epilepsy, had a seizure and she was not here to calmly take charge. The lesson lay in the empty chair at the dinner table. It was learned night after night, day after day.
And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.
Losing a loved one often means losing your footing in the world. It means navigating a whole new world. Even more so, losing a parent (or close caregiver) can feel like you’ve lost a sense of security and protection. It requires that you figure out your new role in a world without them. O’Rourke grapples with this as well. After losing her mother, she feels a deep sense of “aloneness,” of being “motherless.” She also starts taking on the role of caretaker and worrier in her family (“Part of my new role is to worry.”).
While The Long Goodbye focuses on O’Rourke’s experience with loss, her stunning memoir deals with universal themes and struggles. It is an insightful, thoughtful, raw and beautiful read, where the author lets readers into her heart. As she mourns her beloved mother and processes her grief, readers may very well do the same with their own painful losses.