Rick (from Another Book Blog)'s Reviews > The Long Goodbye: A Memoir

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
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Jul 12, 2012

Read from July 12 to 16, 2012

"I'd always thought of Hamlet's melancholy as existential ... But now it strikes me that he is moody and irascible in no small part because he is grieving: his father has just died. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the days while the rest of the world acts as if nothing has changed.

For the trouble is not just that Hamlet is sad; it is that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. When Hamlet comes on stage, his uncle greets him with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" … No wonder that Hamlet is angry and cagey; he is told that how he feels is "unmanly" and "unseemly". This was a predicament familiar to me. No one was telling me that my sadness was unseemly, but I felt, all the time, that to descend to the deepest fathoms of it was somehow taboo." (pg 127)

What is it like to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief? After her mother died of cancer at the age of 55, Meghan O’Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow. She began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief—its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies—an endeavor that ultimately bloomed into a profound look at how caring for her mother during her illness changed and strengthened their bond. With both candor and lyricism the author explores the fifteen months following her mother's death.

But how does one write about something that is different for everyone? This is the question that every book about grief has grappled with. There is no paint-by-numbers, step-by-step guide to overcoming grief. What works for some will most certainly not work for others. So why, then, did O'Rourke write The Long Goodbye, and why, then, should you bother reading it?

For me, it's more than the wisdom found in the passages she quotes, than the similarities some might find in their experiences; it's the fact that this woman—who in the throes of grief divorced her husband, alienated her family, and embarked on a meandering journey to find solace in a series of empty relationships—got through it. The process might not have been pretty or poetic, but she got through it. And you will, too.

The crux of O'Rourke's narrative is how Western society fails us in times of intense grief. We are almost entirely without mourning rituals, communal experiences where we share our pain with others and lean on them for support. This has resulted in death being a discomfort for people. It's awkward. We have no idea how to handle the pain of others and so we, largely, ignore it.

Because of this, O'Rourke set about on something of a personal odyssey to find solace in ... something. She read widely from scholars to psychologists, dramas to self-help, memoirs to fictions. She traveled, threw herself into sex, and eventually, rekindled relationships she couldn't be accountable to while she was reeling. But, mostly, she learned that she needed to include her mother in her life, rather than run away from her. By making connections, by celebrating past experiences, by making her grief a central part of who she is now, O'Rourke was able to accept that her mother wasn't coming back; however, she will never be truly gone.

"I thought I was prepared for my mother's death.
I knew it would happen.
Yet the reality of her 'being dead' was so different from her death." (pg 199)

Coming to terms with grief, with the death of a loved one, isn't so much an emergence from a cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction. That pain, that loss, is never going to go away. It will always be there. What O'Rourke taught me is that the key is to learn to grow around it, to make it a part of you, and find a way to continue on at the same time.

I'm different than most readers of this book, in that I've yet to experience an intense, debilitating death of a loved one. My parents are alive and well, my brother is healthy, my friends have not yet suffered any tragedies. For this reason I was unsure of whether I would learn anything from The Long Goodbye, or at the very least, whether I would experience the same book as others no doubt would. And obviously I haven't. I can't. As Iris Murdoch once said, "The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved."

And yet, there were moments when I was profoundly moved. I earmarked more pages in this book than any other I've ever read. After experiencing both O'Rourke's journey, and those of greats like C. S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, and Lord Alfred Tennyson, I'm certainly more pensive about the concept of death than I have been in a long time. As Lewis wrote at the beginning of A Grief Observed, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."

O'Rourke points out that the 5 Stages of Grief are, essentially, a crock. Grief isn't a road map. Not everyone hits the same stages, and certainly not in the same order. To whittle down a person's experience into anything approaching "textbook" is to belittle their journey, to shepherd them into a feeling of being common (i.e. something not to pay much attention to ... everyone goes through this).

I was fascinated to learn about the physiological effects people experience, how grief is as much physical as it is mental. Scientists have in fact found that grief, like fear, is a stress reaction, attended by deep physiological changes. Levels of stress hormones like cortison increase. Sleep patterns are disrupted. The immune system is weakened. Mourners may experience loss of appetite, palpitations, even hallucinations. Sensations of somatic distress occur in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.

The experience is brutally physiological. It literally takes your breath away. Its physicality is also what makes grief so hard to communicate to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

Whether you've experienced grief on this level or you haven't, you're certain to take something from The Long Goodbye. Hopefully it helps you on your journey towards acceptance, or prepares you better to aid in the acceptance of a loved one. It's helped me a great deal.

Painter Dora Carrington, in her journal after her husband passed away, wrote: "I dreamt of you again last night. And when I woke up it was as if you had died afresh … It is impossible to think that I shall never sit with you again and hear your laugh. That every day for the rest of my life you will be away." (pg 181)

For the first time I am refusing to give a book a rating. It just seems wrong to do so; trivializing, I suppose. Know that I highly recommend it, because everyone should learn more about this process, from both sides of the experience.
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