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Monday, May 23, 2011

Fourth Monday Book Review: The Long Goodbye

This month’s book review is of The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Megan O’Rourke. Amazon’s description of the book is here. Information on O’Rourke is here. Yes, this is another book by a person writing about a universal experience from their point-of-view. I find that while experiences are corporate, journeys are individual. In The Long Goodbye, in particular, we meet a young woman (early 30s) who wants to believe that her thinking isn’t magical, that the right combination of intellectual pursuits, physical stretching and emotional openness will bring her mother back to life. It doesn’t. Grab a Kleenex or two and a comforting beverage. O’Rourke’s grief landscape is austere and harsh, with emotion-whipped rocky outcroppings and deep caverns of despair.

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. I read O’Rourke’s initial forays into discussing her grief on Slate magazine and, doing my own grieving at the time, I found them inaccessible and, seemingly, self-indulgent. I could not connect with her pain and found no anchor in her writing to process my own.

Some of that work was incorporated into the book, but I did not recognize it in the longer form. I also found the book to have a depth and breadth I didn’t remember from the articles. I suspect that, for me, this was a better time to read this work and, perhaps, for O’Rourke a bit of time made the difference as well.

O’Rourke is a poet and her writing is full of metaphor that is heart-wrenching and inspiring in its attempts to describe the realities of watching one’s mother die and living in a world without the vessel that brought you into being. She writes, “I also felt that if I told the story of her death, I could understand it better, make sense of it- perhaps even change it. What had happened still seemed implausible: A person was present your entire life, and then one day she disappeared and never came back. It resisted belief. Even when a death is foreseen, I was surprised to find, it still feels sudden- an instant that could have gone differently.” (p. 139)  

The first half of the book is O’Rourke’s memory of her mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer and her death. The second half is O’Rourke’s grief and attempt to gain a handle on her emotional reaction, which both challenges and baffles her. As she feels the role-reversal as a child caring for a parent’s intimate needs, O’Rourke notes that she needs a mother, her mother, to help her process the fact that her mother is dying. She wants the final weeks and days to be full of meaning and tinged with significance. Instead, she finds herself watching television with her mother, talking about Christmas decorations, feeling frustrated. “Time doesn’t obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.” (81)

O’Rourke comes from a family that has little connection to a religious community. Her mother has, in part, turned away from the Roman Catholicism of her youth and so O’Rourke describes in detail the family’s love of reading, their outdoor summers, their love of one another. These are the objects of her devotion, the things that define her faith. The depth of these experiences is vast, but their breadth cannot quite cover the shock of the loss of her mother. O’Rourke notes that her brothers and her father all grieve differently and differently still from her. They all have the same injury, she says, but each manifests different symptoms (104).

In the months after her mother’s death, O’Rourke finds herself skeptical about rituals and yet longing for markers to note her emotions, the truth of her experience and inexplicability of what has happened and what lies beyond. She writes of her envy of her Jewish friends who have the Kaddish, of the words and prayers that give one’s mourning some shape and recognition. She writes, “I longed for rituals not only to indicate I was still in mourning but also to have a nonpsychological way of commemorating and expressing my loss. Without ritual, the only way to share a loss was to talk about it… At times, though, this sharing felt invasive. I did not want to be pitied. In those moments, I wanted a way to show my grief rather than tell it.” (157)

There is truth in what she says about our culture’s inability to deal with death. In our fear of doing the wrong thing, we often do nothing. All but the most religious among us have no desire to think on the inevitability of death. All but those of the strongest faith cling to the life of which we know, still having a tiny amount of uncertainty about the life to come in which we believe. Furthermore, in this day and age, death is as prevalent as ever, but in our Western culture it remains distant for many people until it is actually personal. We can avoid wakes and funerals for a long time until death comes to our nearest and dearest.

I often hear people talk about the fact that they long for a way for people to understand that they are dealing with a death without them having to say so. Mourning clothes, wreathes, pins… all these things served as societal markers to remind us to be gentle with grieving persons. Now, in our rawness, we are expected to yield in traffic, to be pushed in the grocery store, to pay our bills on time, yet all the while wanting to scream, “But my BELOVED DIED. I cannot see them. They are not here. I don’t want to do this. NONE OF THIS MATTERS.”

One of the metaphors that captured O’Rourke’s imagination was from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (among the best, if not THE best, books about dealing with personal grief). Lewis writes that a loss, the death of a beloved, is a like an amputation. “If the blood doesn’t stop gushing soon after the operation, you will die. To survive means, by definition, that the blood has stopped. But the amputation is still there.” (279)

One of the things that I frequently encounter is people who are surprised at how long the intensity of grief goes on. If we use the image of amputation, it becomes somewhat easier to comprehend that a grieving person is learning a new way to live. You may remain in the same neighborhood, but your address has changed. You may now reside in the “House of Deceased Spouse” or “My Mother is Dead” or “My Child No Longer Lives”. The new residence resembles your old one, but the layout is different enough to trip you up a little bit for much longer than you expect. The familiar look seems sinister because you can’t comprehend how anything could remain the same or, worse, move forward when you desperately long for markers of the change and for a pause in the world.

I have not even begun to convey the beauty of much of the writing in this book. O’Rourke’s book is worth reading if you’re interested in reading another perspective on dealing with grief. It is beautifully written. It is not the kind of book that you give someone (most people) immediately following a death. They need space and the rawness of this book may not be helpful in the immediate aftermath following a death. I think O’Rourke also stirs up good discussion points for people of faith. What are our mourning markers beyond the funeral or memorial service? How do we help our friends and neighbors at anniversaries and in bleak nights? What kind of words can we use to discuss grief and our fears? What light of truth can we bring to the world about tenderness to the grieving? What can we offer to those who are tangentially connected to faith communities?

Fine print: I purchased a copy of this book for review. All thoughts are my own. I have not been compensated in any way for anything said in this review. All quotations come from:
O’Rourke, Meghan. The Long Goodbye: A Memoir. Riverhead Books, New York, NY. 2011.


  1. It sounds like a great choice for a church book group, thanks for the review!

  2. I've been thinking about reading this, and now I will based on your review, Pastor Julia!

    I envy, in ways, too, the practice of Kaddish.

  3. Thanks for the review. I look forward to reading this.

  4. oh my, interesting...have you seen Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking"? or Joye Carol Oates -- I think her bereavement memoir is called "The Widow's Story" but I'm not entirely sure.
    Interesting, interesting stuff. Thank you, Julia!

  5. Thank you for this, Julia. I'm looking forward to this read.

    I remember how startled I was, many decades ago, at the surprise and intensity of grief even when the illness is long and the death expected, as I watched my husband's aunt after her husband died of cancer. My own mother and brother having been killed in a car accident and my first stepmother in another accident, I had thought that it would be easier somehow, on those who had time to prepare.

    Different, yet, but not easier.

    I chuckled at your description of some of the author's Slate writings as self-indulgent. I have just begun to pull together and edit some of my writing from the first year or two after my son's death. A couple of people are willing to read it to see whether it's worth anything and my daughter, who has read most of it and is encouraging me,said, "You know, Mom, if you publish this, some people will love it and some will really hate it."

    Last summer my book group of closest friends read The Year of Magical Thinking at the suggestion of one of us who had lost her husband of 35 years two years earlier. We had a wonderful discussion, but people then and now continue to articulate dismay and even irritation at the length and width and depth of her grief. Like me, she is learning that it is safest to keep most of it to herself.

    I am preaching in my home church Sunday for the first time since my son died (I was in seminary then) and I am using the I Peter text (hope), so as I write I am trying to strike the appropriate balance between my own experience, about which I will speak more candidly from the pulpit of the church in which my son's funeral was held than I would anywhere else, and the recognition that I am preaching for others and to their experiences.

  6. Robin, I really appreciate what you're say. I have read several other reviews (or non-reviews) where people didn't want to read this book because of their remembered reaction to her pieces in Slate. O'Rourke also tends to draw a "hater" crowd in part due to the perceived disparity between her age and her prominence and significant job/publishing history (read:jealousy). I have no doubt that many people were helped by reading her initial essays when and how they first appeared.

    I find that many people drink up the words of others around grief because they long for an anchor and an explanation. I am sure whatever you are able to share about your own experience will be powerful, helpful and healing- hopefully to you and to those around you.


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