To face death without the architecture of belief may be devastating, but when endured by gifted writers, it results in a potent genre: the memoir of loss. There was
's "The Year of Magical Thinking," about the death of her husband, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005 and was later made into a stage play; this year Joyce Carol Oates published her own memoir, "A Widow's Story." Literature like this may be one of our best hopes for a secular reckoning with grief.
Add to the canon the talented young writer Meghan O'Rourke, who was 32 when her 55-year-old mother died of cancer in 2008. Her memoir, "The Long Goodbye," chronicles her caretaking and sorrow.
O'Rourke grew up in a happy home, with married, affectionate parents. The family — which included her two younger brothers and well-loved dogs — lived in Brooklyn and often spent summers in
. There is an idyllic charm to it all, and O'Rourke evokes one of those summer nights in the book's opening pages, establishing a bulwark of life fully lived against the sickness and death that follows.
Her mother died at home, wasted by illness — 2 1/2 years earlier she'd been diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. There was no cause, other than her terrible luck. O'Rourke's parents, both educators, had moved to
after decades in
, where O'Rourke herself lived and worked as an editor at Slate. After the diagnosis, O'Rourke commuted regularly to spend time with, then help, her mother.
"As it was happening, my mother's decline did not seem inevitable," she writes. "My mind kept holding out the promise of more time."
If this sounds familiar, like the first stage of Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining,
, acceptance), O'Rourke might agree, but she'd likely take issue with your assumptions. Those stages, she says, are all mixed together, as contemporary research shows. What's more, Kübler-Ross used them to describe the emotions of the dying, not of those who are left behind.
As if following this template of mixed-up emotions rather than a chronological structure, the book is fractured and cyclical, moving among doctors' appointments, childhood holidays, bad news phone calls, a shopping trip, hospice and back again. The path of the book itself seems to be driven by O'Rourke's unpredictable tide of grief.
During the 30 months of her mother's illness and the year that followed, O'Rourke married — coincidentally, when her mother was in remission — had her own health scare, divorced, quit her job, went away to writers' retreats, struck up a long-distance affair, found some friendships impossible to maintain, rekindled a romance with her high school boyfriend and taught college writing classes. Those events, however, never take center stage.
Instead, the focus remains on her mother, on trying to care for her and on O'Rourke's wrestling with grief. The effect of her circuitous storytelling is that her mother remains present in the text even as we know she is dead: She's as present for the reader as she must be for the children and husband who lost her.
"After my mother's death, I felt the lack of rituals to shape and support my loss," O'Rourke writes. "I found myself envying my Jewish friends the practice of saying Kaddish, with its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remember the lost person."
Raised in a secular household, O'Rourke longs for ritual and for explanation that she sees in communities of faith. She can't quite accept that her mother is gone; she doesn't entirely believe it. Yet even though she writes that she senses her mother — in the wind, as a voice, in a peaceful moment — she reveals that others locate her elsewhere. Without a clear belief system, she's left with small handfuls of incoherent, hopeful contradiction. It's not the most satisfying aspect of the book, but it does not feel untrue.
O'Rourke finds some solace in books. She uses them to find different kinds of understanding, to give voice to her pain and shape to her frustrations. Her long list of further reading includes Shakespeare, poetry and analytical works looking at dying and grief. What she finds is that in 21st century America, grief has become "the last taboo." She wants to display her grief so she might be given a berth of kindness, rather than the daily shove and rush of New York City. In her life, some friends can't comprehend how her world has shifted, while she makes deep new bonds with others who do. She wants to talk about her sadness past the time when those discussions are, in her community, acceptable.
"I kept thinking, 'I just want somewhere to put my grief,'" she writes. "I was imagining a vessel for it.… I had the sense that if I could chant, or rend my clothes, or tear my hair, I could, in effect, create that vessel in the world."
She has succeeded, for this book becomes that vessel. It's a secular ceremony, one that memorializes the mother's best aspects, her daughter's effort to be present throughout her decline and the terrible, common burden of being the person who continues to live.