in conversation with Alex Shephard

Written shortly after her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye is a memoir about coping with death. Both an attempt to make sense of a world without a mother and a piercing look at how mourning has changed over the past century — death has become deritualized and, O’Rourke argues, more isolating — the book is a jagged, moving and elegant exploration of the actual experience of grieving. O’Rourke mimicks, with language, what it means to be bereft; to be suddenly conscious not only of the loss of a loved one, but of mortality in general. The book is centered by her wide-ranging and idiosyncratic reading — poetry, academic works, Proust, Barthes, This Republic of Suffering. Full Stop spoke to O’Rourke about the books she read, the paradox of grief, and readers’ response to the book.

Did writing the book and the series for Slate affect the way you grieved your mother’s death?

It’s impossible to know. Whether or not I wrote the book, I was going to obsessively think about my mother in the months after her death. I was immersed in the process of relearning the world without her, which meant also that I was cycling through all sorts of memories of the world with her. Actually, having the book became a kind of structure for that. I kept thinking about the book, once I was writing it, as my form of saying Kaddish.

Writing it really became my mourning ritual. In that sense, it helped me feel purposeful and effective about feelings that were inchoate and difficult.

If I hadn’t had the book to write, I might have felt guiltily unproductive. The act of finding language for something that is so murky and mercurial and repetitive – there was a kind of solace in that. You’re doomed to fail – you can’t actually find language for this mystery – but there was a sense of consolation in the attempt.

The way the book is structured is remarkable.  It performs the experience of a certain kind of grieving — the “anticipatory grief” during your mother’s illness and the memories that dominated your life after her death. Were you always conscious of the book’s structure, or did it take time to figure it out?

I wanted to write a book that would reflect the lived experience of loss, which is to say that I didn’t want to write the book from five years on, reflecting back on what I remembered loss being like. Of course, the risk of writing a book in this way is that it will be this very unfiltered, amorphous mess and I didn’t want that either. I’m not interested in publishing my journal.

So the structure was one of the most challenging things I had to think about and I decided it would come last – it would be something I would feel my way into as I wrote, which was scary. I produced a lot of material that I didn’t end up including in the book. I think I was able to work that way — writing and generating language for what was happening and recording experiences as they were happening — because I had done so much work as an editor and as a poet, where you’re constantly shaping and reshaping. I had a sense that I could take whatever I was generating and find the latent structure that would neither put the reader off but also would, in some way, be mimetic of some of the messiness and confusion and searching that goes on in mourning.

I initially thought that the book would be set after my mother had died, in the present tense, and that I would flash back into her illness, and back into my childhood, because that was what grief felt like: you’re in the present, but you’re continually brought up against these memories. But that just seemed way too confusing, as I started to use it.

Why is the book divided into three sections?

My idea was that the first section would basically be my mother’s illness, and whatever exposition the reader needed. I wanted that section to feel like being in the middle of a hurricane: it would get faster and faster and be more and more claustrophobic, and the reader would be wishing for it to end, would feel trapped in the illness.

That was what the experience had felt like –  [I shift] into the present tense at the end of the first section to intensify that sense that there’s no escaping those last days, you’re just in them. There’s nowhere else your mind is going. There’s no work you’re doing. You’re obsessively tending to someone almost in the way parents of a new baby are.

And then there would be a break, this rupture, and the book would become more meditative and quieter and slower and more reflective in the second section. Because that was what grief was like: there was this anticipatory grief that got more and more chaotic, and then there was this numbed calm after the storm —which was of course not mere calm, but a place of inner chaos.

In that section of the book, I knew that there would be a lot of memory, because that really was, for me, what grief was like. Freud, in his first famous essay about modern mourning, said that the mourner has to cycle through memories in order to let go of them. That’s too reductive a principle, but the description of “cycling” struck me as roughly accurate.

I really was — I think many mourners really are — colonized by the past and by memories: you cycle through them, not one last time, but one first time with the person not there, if that makes sense.

I knew there would be a third section where things would synthesize a little bit, where I would begin to come to some conlusions, but I didn’t want the book to get tidy. The end was always going to be the most problematic part of the book because there’s no end to grieving, in a traditional sense.

How did you deal with that problem?

As a poet, we sort of live with this idea that indeterminacy and messiness is okay at this point in literary history. That part of me just thought, “Look, there are going to be some readers who crave a kind of Oprah-esque culmination, and I’m just not going to be able to deliver that.” Because, in a way, my book is about alteration rather than summation. I felt that what I could really do was to render accurately the ways in which I was beginning to be restored to a self I recognized, a functioning self in the world, a self that was more absorbed in the present than in the past.

Basically, I’d been wondering and wondering what the end would be, and one day I was out taking a run and I just kind of heard it in my head. That sounds really weird, but it’s true. I suddenly realized that this thing my mother said in one of the first dreams I’d had of her would be the end of the book. I had a dream where I was visiting my mother in Connecticut and she said, “Stay the night, stay the night.”

As I was running, I heard that phrase and I realized that this was my impulse when she was sick, to stay the night. In other words, to stave off the night — as well as to keep spending time with my mother, in that double sense of the phrase. I realized that the only way to end the book was to cycle back to the moment of her death, which I had begun with. In that way, you would hopefully get a sense of coherence and conclusion, formally.

You write very movingly about this impulse you felt, while your mother was sick, to make changes, to throw things off from your own life. It seems as though that impulse is still mysterious to you — unlike a lot of other memoirists, you resist the urge to put it into a tidy narrative.

Yes, there is a kind of murkiness in that part of the story. If I had written the book 20 years from now or 15 years from now, I might, as a storyteller, choose a narrative that would be more explicit about those decisions. I felt that my job was really to describe what happened in an intuitive way, a way that would be recognizable to others who had gone through this experience, and also at least semi-legible to those who haven’t.

Though I guess I do offer a fairly tidy narrative: I suggest that I was trying to escape her death. I think that that’s true, and I think that’s as much as I could say — or as much as anyone could say — about my own decisions in a very chaotic time.

The word “learning” comes up throughout the book – “unlearning,” “learning to live with transformation,” “relearning the world in the aftermath of loss” ….  What attracted you to that word?

There’s an amazing quote from T.H. White’s The Book of Merlin, it’s Merlin telling the young King Arthur how to survive in times of great trouble or controversy:

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust and never dream of regretting.” 

In the aftermath of my mother’s death I felt that I had lost so many things: I had lost her; I had lost, in her, the person who loves me unconditionally, the person who brought me into this world; I had lost my husband, I had lost my job. I was in this place that was utterly new.

One thing that happens with loss is that I think people feel — I know I felt — the utter fragility of the world. I felt like it could all disappear at any time. Learning became the stay against that. I ended up feeling there was one thing the world couldn’t take away and that was my curiosity, my desire to understand. I just ended up reading and trying to learn. It was a recuperative thing in the midst of all this pain.

And also, look, there’s an illusion of control that comes with learning. When you’ve just experienced a loss of control, that’s really appealing.

How did you decide what to read?

As I say in the preface of the bibliography, it was a very haphazard and intuitive thing. Someone would say to me, “Hey, have you read Gehlek Rimpoche’s book about death?” And maybe someone would send it to me, or I would pick it up. So there was something accidental about the reading.

In fact, at one point, I tried to make the reading a little more systematic because I knew I was writing the book. I thought, “I know there are certain books I just have to have read.” When I started to do that, the whole thing started to feel false. I really wanted the book to be as authentic a portrait of what I was drawn to as it could be. If that meant that there were strange holes, or things I overlooked, then so be it.

We live in this world that privileges information. But it really was imaginative literature in which I found the most recognition and solace. It was while reading a book like William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows or reading Yeats that I felt, for the first time, that I wasn’t totally stranded in a world of alienation, by myself. This was, in fact, the singular human experience that was actually unifying.

In the book you talk about this paradox: that grief is universal — death is perhaps one of a few experiences we all share — but that you also feel incredibly alienated and isolated. In the book you argue, as others have, that one reason it’s so isolating now is that we’ve lost some of the rituals we used in the past.

Yes. For a whole host of reasons – many of them complicated sociological ones – many of us have lost the public mourning rituals that used to connect us to people in this very alienating period of private grief. Of course, there was always isolation in grief, but I think it’s intensified now. And we live in an age that does not look at death very squarely – this is connected to the first point. Because we’ve lost the shared language of ritual mourning, we’ve put ourselves in this position where we’re very isolated in our grief. There’s really no manner to share it. It’s hard to be aware that while we each lose a particular person and a particular relationship there is something powerfully universal about it; loss really is the defining human experience. It’s an experience where you really come to understand and come to be humbled by your sense of commonality.

On a hard day after my mom died, I got on the subway and looked around and thought, How many people on this car are feeling exactly what I’m feeling? Or how many people had felt this way in the past two years?”

And we don’t talk about death much. The upper middle classes kind of buy into this idea that your job is to keep mastering things and keep doing the next thing on the track that you’re on – get married, have children – and if you do those things, you’ll be safe.

When you go through an experience of losing someone to an illness, you’re flush up against the reality that you have no control. It was very weird to have that experience at an age where most of my friends hadn’t yet. It was particularly alienating because they were still in this mode of denial, or separation, from what felt to me like this really persistent truth.

I think that if I had gone through it 20 years from now it would be, possibly, a very different experience because I may not have felt so alone. I’ve heard from many people that are older who did feel as alone, so maybe I shouldn’t say that.

You write that you were the “child of atheists,” but had an “intuition of God.” And a decent portion of The Long Goodbye deals with abstract, Terrance Mallick-y questions about death and beauty and God. For instance, you write about being drawn to a passage from Virginia Woolf’s aborted memoir, in which she writes, “It is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we–I mean all human beings–are connected with this.”  Did your mother’s death change your spiritual beliefs?

This is, understandably, the hardest thing to talk about. In the book, I try to grapple to some degree with the question that’s present in the mind of anyone who’s lost somebody: Where did they go? What happened to them? My parents were lapsed Catholics; I was raised agnostic, if not atheistically. I had no structure, no belief system, no sense of what it is that’s out there. I believed that we die and then there’s nothing really left of us.

One thing surprised me about my mother’s death: we were with her when she died, and I had assumed that in that moment I would feel that she was utterly gone and utterly removed from me. In fact, that really wasn’t what I felt. On the contrary, I felt that I could kind of detect her, other there, in this very amorphous way that made no sense to me. I had no structure or understanding of it. (It’s very common, it turns out, that people who lose somebody often feel that they can detect the person in the world somehow in the form of an animal or a tree or what-have-you.)

So part of the book is about trying to find beauty in the aftermath of trauma, and in beauty to try to find some sort of meaning. And then also trying to understand: Where did we come from? I obviously have no answers for that, but what I wanted to do, at least, was to try to live with that question on the page and to show that I was living with it in life. I was living with this real sense of mystery. When I encountered that wonderful Virginia Woolf quote, I had this feeling that I could detect this kind of order, or meaning, when I thought about the universe. I don’t know that there’s a God or that there’s a heaven, but I did feel that there was this order that I could detect.

By sharing your story, in a way you’ve invited other people to share their stories with you. What’s the response been thus far?

One of the extraordinary things about publishing this book is that at least some of its readers [have connected] very deeply with the book and find in it a reflection of their own experience. I’ve received more than a thousand emails over time – this includes emails in response to the Slate series – from readers who want to share their stories and talk about moments they recognized. In some cases, they want to talk about the difference in their experience.

To me, this suggests an extraordinary hunger for recognition of the fact that we don’t deal well with grief in our culture. A hunger for recognition that grief isn’t something that happens over the course of one to three months, but is a powerful, deep alteration in our lives. I don’t think this is a morbid thing: I think it’s a hunger for having conversations about meaning – a hunger to really grapple with this experience.

It’s humbling and strange to be on the receiving end of these very moving, very sad stories from other people. I’ve done readings where people have come who have just lost someone. That can be very emotional: emotional for them, emotional for me, because even though I feel like I’m in a very different place from the place I was in when I was writing the book and experiencing these things, when I see someone whose voice is raw and they’ve just lost their mother I can hear in their voice exactly how I felt. So it’s intense.

Sure, every now and then there’s someone who wants to be my grief counselor, but for the most part people are very respectful: they understand I’m not a grief counselor, I’m not there to help them. But the book is there to help them.