I got this book from the library after reading a quote in a review: "After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn't come naturally." That one statement struck me as so absolutely true that I felt impelled to read this book. We have recently suffered a loss in my family, and I am still trying to learn to believe this.
The Long Goodbye is a memoir of the illness and death of Meghan O'Rourke's mother, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke. The book opens with a brief prologue, a memory of summer family vacations. The first sentence of the first chapter then comes as a shock: "My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer shortly before three p.m. on Christmas Day of 2008." From there O'Rourke moves back and forth in time, weaving together different strands of narrative: her parents' marriage and her own childhood; her mother's diagnosis of stage four cancer, the agonizing and ultimately futile treatments she endured; and the aftermath of her mother's death and her own attempts to live with that reality.
It is a truism that grief is universal, but each of us experiences it in unique way. At the same time there are commonalities. As other writers like Joan Didion and Kathleen Ashenburg have noted, as a society we have lost many of the rituals that helped people in past generations; we don't know how to mourn. Yet public grief has become unseemly, except at the deaths of celebrities. In our self-help society, mourners are expected to "get better," to move on, lest they make others uncomfortable. O'Rourke's parents were both atheists, and she considers the role of faith in loss, coming to some stirrings of belief herself. From what I have seen, faith doesn't always provide answers or even consolation, but the rituals of faith, especially liturgical burial rites, do offer some comfort, even if it's just the comfort of having something to do, to follow.
O'Rourke is a poet, and her words sing in sorrow.
"The night is very long, and my mother is lost in it . . . The bond between mother and child is so unlike any other that it is categorically irreplaceable . . . with my mother's death, the person who brought me into the world left it, a portal closing behind her . . . "Apparently it is common after a loss for mourners to be given books on grief, and apparently these aren't always welcome or helpful. This one might be both.