Two months after my aunt passed, I started to read The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, a memoir about the loss of her mother. It was so true and sad that I couldn’t bear to read it. While I put it aside, it continued to haunt me. I had to ask my husband to hide it.
A few months later, I felt ready and even eager to read it. My husband told me where the book was (in his underwear drawer) and I finished it in two days. Yes, I cried. Yes, it was hard to read. But in reading it, I recognized my emotions, the same ones resulting from a different situation, and it helped me to heal and better understand myself.
There’s no single answer to the question of how someone should mourn a loved one. The most thrilling part about this memoir is not that O’Rourke relays her individual story, but that she shares what she learned by reading related literature and studies. She integrates revelatory moments from her research into the narrative.
O’Rourke’s prose is honest, self-aware and informed. Here is a thoughtful paragraph from Chapter 7, “I had been sent healing workbooks and the Buddhist texts about how to die. I had been sent On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying and the Bible and memoirs about deaths of parents. I read nearly all of them; I was hungry for death scenes. C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, his slim account of the months after this wife’s death from cancer, was the most evocative. Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go, and yet letting go cannot happen all at once. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace lies in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace, and also, This has been going on a long time.”
After my aunt passed, I found some comfort in literature and found O’Rourke’s instinct to look towards writing familiar. At the end of the book, O’Rourke lists the books she read, both those she references in the text and those she read that weren’t mentioned by name. She lists critical studies and nonfiction, books on the psychology of grief, fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir. I look forward to following her lead.
For more, you might be interested in NPR’s review and re-printing of the first chapter.