Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Long Good-bye, by Meghan O'Rourke

Over the past few years, I have read several memoirs of grieving, but The Long Good-Bye resonates in a way the others haven't. Perhaps that is because O'Rourke is writing about her mother's death, and I have a mother (still very much alive, thank goodness), whereas the other works are all about husbands, and I haven't had one of those for years. Or perhaps it's because O'Rourke is about the same age as I was when I experienced a devastating loss (I do suspect that grieving changes with the age of the mourner). For whatever reason, I found The Long Good-Bye moving in a way that encouraged reflection.

O'Rourke's mother, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke, was in her early fifties when she was diagnosed with cancer. O'Rourke is unflinching in describing her responses to her mother's illness, the realization that she is probably going to die, and her actual death. (O'Rourke decides to get married while her mother is in treatment--and then to get divorced just months later, adding to the unbelievable layers of stress she was feeling.) When Barbara dies, O'Rourke is devastated by how much she misses her mother, how "unmoored" she feels.

As she struggles with her grief, she reads prodigiously about mourning, and she shares insights and excerpts from her reading. This choice is not only instructive--we learn as she learns--it also helps to ground her pain in the experiences and wisdom of others.

O'Rourke writes about this difficult subject with great grace. I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand more about how people deal with loss and grief.

Favorite passages:
Other people--friends, colleagues--got used to my mother dying of cancer. But I did not. Each day, sunlight came like a knife to a wound that was not healed.

The desert was dry and majestic and it calmed me; I was empty and it was, too. The open sky over the land, the juxtaposition of the minute and the majestic--it all expressed the dissonance I felt, and having my sense of smallness reflected back at me put me strangely at ease. How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it did matter to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural.

It's not a question of getting over it or healing. No, it's a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It's not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

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