The mysteries of grief that remain unsolved by mourning
Meghan O’Rourke’s mother, Barbara, died on Christmas Day 2008 from colorectal cancer at 55. “The Long Goodbye’’ is in many ways O’Rourke’s absorption and interpretation of the Jewish mourner’s Kaddish that she so envies “with its ceremonious designation of time each day to remembering the lost person.’’
I recited the Kaddish for my father for a year after he died. It was a year in which, after his long illness, the regular recital of the Kaddish set me free to search, rescue, and ultimately recover him. Over the course of a year O’Rourke similarly captures her raw grief as well as the transition she makes from disorienting mourning to living in relative peace with abiding memories.
It can be overwhelming to chronicle and ultimately share the grievous aftermath of a parent’s death. But a worthwhile account must go beyond personal suffering and become a larger, living narrative. O’Rourke has said in interviews that she intended for “The Long Goodbye’’ to be both her story and a philosophical investigation into grief and mourning. In this she achieved success, crafting an intelligent, heart-laden narrative that brilliantly demonstrates that “if the condition of grief is nearly universal, its transactions are exquisitely personal.’’
The book begins with the diagnosis of O’Rourke’s mother’s cancer and then follows over the next 2 1/2 years as the relationship between the two women deepens while the mother’s condition declines. O’Rourke, who is a nonfiction writer, editor, and poet, seamlessly weaves storytelling and scholarship together throughout, confronting death in all of its deep pain and frightening uncertainty.
She notes that until the 20th century mourning a death was a communal affair. In our postmodern world, grief is no longer shared; instead it has turned inward, often isolating the mourner.
The very condition of grief has been taken apart and reassembled as a psychological process. There are the five stages of grief introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist, in the 1960s. Over the years these stages have been neatly sequenced and packaged as the standard by which to gauge the effects of grief. For O’Rourke and, I would guess, for many of us, the stages of grief do not conform to a predictable chronology. Nor are they stages so much as states of mind. Immediately following her mother’s death, O’Rourke experienced an overwhelming yearning that superseded denial or anger.
Through research conducted by Holly Prigerson of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, O’Rourke reports on the psychosocial effects of grief on terminally ill patients and their families. Prigerson’s findings differentiate between “normal grief,’’ one that peaks within six months of a close death and gradually dissipates, and “complicated grief,’’ which incapacitates and requires medical intervention. While seemingly clinical, the study’s findings comfortably coexist with O’Rourke’s personal story as well as the literary references that leaven her narrative.
William Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman are among the luminaries who shed light on O’Rourke’s state of mind and offer comfort. After the family spreads Barbara’s ashes on a beach near her home in Connecticut, O’Rourke turns to Whitman’s “Song of Myself’’ for comfort. “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under our boot-soles.’’ Barbara’s ashes will forever be a part of the living world rather than entombed in a cemetery. As for coping with ongoing memories of loved ones who have died, O’Rourke gives us the poet Franz Wright’s haunting words: “Besides, / in my opinion you aren’t dead. / (I know dead people, and you are not dead.)’’
O’Rourke has written a beautiful elegy. She celebrates her mother and movingly meditates on the knotty mystery of grief. At the end of the day, “The Long Goodbye’’ gives voice to the ineffable idea that our dead live beyond our rituals and “ceremonious designation.’’
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about her father and the year she said the Kaddish for him. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.