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.
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.