Mental Health

Meghan O’Rourke: The Long Good-Bye

By Jennifer Haupt
Created Apr 26 2011 – 9:30am

Meghan O’Rourke’s honest and beautifully written memoir began as a journal she kept after her mother’s death. In the process, she not came to terms with her own grief but was compelled to learn more about the grieving process. Here’s more from Meghan:

Jennifer Haupt: Had you been journaling before your mother’s death? And why did you start journaling about the mourning process?

Meghan O’Rourke: I found that I was writing down little scraps of things even while my mother was still alive. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in May 2006, about two and a half years before she died-on Christmas Day, 2008.

By Jennifer Haupt
Created Apr 26 2011 – 9:30am

Meghan O’Rourke’s honest and beautifully written memoir began as a journal she kept after her mother’s death. In the process, she not came to terms with her own grief but was compelled to learn more about the grieving process. Here’s more from Meghan:

Jennifer Haupt: Had you been journaling before your mother’s death? And why did you start journaling about the mourning process?

Meghan O’Rourke: I found that I was writing down little scraps of things even while my mother was still alive. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in May 2006, about two and a half years before she died-on Christmas Day, 2008.

When my mother was sick, I found myself needing to put down in my journals all sorts of things-to try to understand them, and, I think, to try to remember them. Those who have gone through a similar experience may know what I mean when I say I was desperate to hold on, to slow things down, to feel some bit of control. Those months were very chaotic. I often felt helpless, powerless to alter the trajectory we were on. And so when we went to a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor was unkind, I could write it all down and it seemed-however falsely, or illusorily-to give me some understanding or control.

It was also, obviously, a way of remembering her, of capturing what was passing so fast: Her funny gestures, her hopefulness, her courage in dealing with the illness, the way she would say “I love you to death” whenever she said “Goodnight.” (The old phrase suddenly broke my heart.) I wanted to slow down time, and writing helped me feel that I was doing so. I was slowing down my thoughts, and making sure I’d remember my mom.

JH: When you lost your mother, did you feel as if you were losing a piece of yourself? If so, how did you recover that piece?

MO: Yeah, I did feel I was losing a piece of myself. Actually, I felt really unsure of my entire place of the world. The person who loved me most in the world was gone. I had to learn how to survive without her. I could almost feel the hole in the world where she had been. It seemed like the world was very precarious and hostile without her in it. I felt insecure and shy, almost like a teenager all over again.

I don’t think I feel I’ve “recovered” that piece. Instead, I keep thinking about a tree growing around an obstacle. After she died, I was still living and growing, but I was forever changed by her death; my life had a new, different path.

As for “recovering,” it’s true that time helps. (Clichés sometimes have wisdom behind them.) Looking back, I’d say that the best thing I did for myself was trying to take care of myself on a simple level – by getting enough rest, not pushing myself too hard, trying to exercise and eat well. I didn’t do any of that consistently, but when I did it helped. Learning to let my friends express their love and support helped also; I realized that they did feel sorrow for me but couldn’t express it, sometimes, or were scared to.

JH: What was most surprising to you about the process of grieving over mother’s death?

MO: I wasn’t prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn’t just sadness, and it wasn’t linear. Somehow I’d thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better – like getting over the flu. That’s not how it was. I’d have a good week, and then one day, a wave of grief would crash over me, threatening me, subsuming me. It was very hard to explain this to friends who hadn’t been through a loss, or to colleagues.

JH: What rituals did you instill after your mother’s death that helped you to feel connected with her?

MO: Nothing helped as much as I would have liked. But I did try to take a walk every Sunday, or light a candle and think about her. The best thing about this was that it forced me to clear out space in the week to think about her. Our minds are mysterious; our conscious brain is like a ship on a sea that is obscure to us. I wanted to make sure to leave time to let myself sway in that sea, if that makes sense. I needed to sit with whatever was going on, not rush through or past my sorrow or anger – not suppress it.

And of course I think that writing this book become my primary ritual, and the one that helped the most. It allowed me time to think about my mother, and try to reckon with her absence; it helped me memorialize her as I so much wanted to do; and it gave me a way of continuing a conversation with her that forced me to acknowledge the true loss, while also, eventually, acknowledging that she would want me to be in the world, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying my friendships.

JH: What was the most difficult part of sharing your story? The most joyous?

MO: It was very difficult to write about real people. I didn’t want to intrude on anyone’s privacy but I also wanted to be as candid as I could be, to tell the truth about grief was like for me and for my family. (Luckily, my father and my brothers were very supportive of my project.)

The best part was getting to remember my mother and how hilarious she could be, and getting to share that with others. Another part was hearing from readers that in some way my words had resonated. (Early on I published some writing about grief in Slate magazine.) This has meant a great deal to me. These readers gave me something concrete: they helped me realize that I wasn’t crazy. At times along the way, I felt like I should just “get over it” already, that something was wrong with me because I wasn’t able to just “let go.”

Talking to women who’d lost their mothers five years ago, or a man whose father had died 10 years ago-this provided a lot of support and context for my emotions. And I realized, it takes time-not a month, not two months-to reorient yourself and regroup. And that’s OK. Loss is the flip side of love, and for me that was the guy rope that I used to guide me through the most precarious moments: the thought that I felt sorrow precisely because I had felt (and still felt) love.

And after my mother’s death I became more open to and empathetic about other people’s struggles and losses.

JH: Is there one true thing about the grieving process that you learned and can share with readers who may be trying to navigate this same path?

MO: I came away strongly feeling that there is no single “way” to mourn and no “solutions” to grief. Nor would I exactly want there to be. Grief after all isn’t a disease. (Though it can shift into what is called “complicated grief,” which looks more like depression). It’s the inevitable result of life-we love the people around us, and yet they leave us, despite our love. What a conundrum! It’s a real one, and we have to reckon with it. And so, it seems to me, having talked to many people, each of us mourns as we will – at varying lengths, with different degrees of intensity. Loss is so complex.

How it hits us may not just have to do with the relationship but the time in our life when we experience it. I felt vulnerable because my mom was a stalwart source of joy and strength for me, and I turned to her for help (and a joke) about everything. I separated from my husband while she was dying so after her death I was also dealing with the grief of divorce. (A happy recent development is that he and I are back together, even though we got divorced in 2009. Apparently this too is not uncommon, though I worried people would think I was crazy when I told them.)

Recently I collaborated on a survey about grief on Slate.com. What I learned from all the thoughtful responses was that while there are many broad similarities to grief, it really seems like there are no set “rules.” Except this: I did notice that one major concern for most mourners-those of us who have lost parents, those who lost unborn children, those who lost a sibling, those who lost a pet, whatever the loss-was that we all fear our loss is not valid in the others, that our mourning will not be recognized. It strikes me that this goes to the heart of grief: what we loved is now gone, and grieving for me was that period where I felt it was only right that my lost one still be given name or space, in my heart, and in the world. Somehow this still seems right to me – that there is some genuine period of adjustment. Maybe that period is shorter for some and longer for others – that is ok. It doesn’t make anyone’s grief less valid or real; it certainly doesn’t make it wrong.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of The Long Goodbye, a memoir of grief just published by Riverhead Books. She is also the author of the poetry collection Halflife, and a culture critic for Slate magazine.

 

 

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