Many Americans don’t wear black or beat their chests and wail in front of others. We may–I have done it–weep or despair, but we tend to do it alone, in the middle of the night. Although our culture has become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief seemed to me like the last taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent.
When Meghan O'Rourke's mother dies, she is totally unprepared for the grief that envelopes her. Even though, she had time to "get used" to the idea that her mother will be no more (a callous euphemism often suggested by the odd person outside the grief circle), it was still a crippling alternating detachment and emotion that grips her. The Long Goodbye is a novel about grief - her grief at losing her mother to cancer, but it could just as easily have been a grief about losing anyone you love intensely. How does one deal with such a universal yet highly personal phenomenon?
When I read the synopsis of this book, I was really eager to read it. I went through a brief episode of grief last year and I remember feeling terribly lost, sad and unconnected. Suddenly, I couldn't relate to anyone. I couldn't form new relationships, I began to judge people I knew by how they reacted to my sadness. Many didn't know how to, and some overdid it. So when the synopsis asked why we are still uncomfortable with someone grieving and why we are not more open about it, I might as well have been asking those questions.
Most of what Meghan wrote easily synced with me - how when she first heard the news about her mother's cancer, she would distract herself by playing games, how she soon decided to get engaged as if happy events will reverse the scenario, and how her subsequent marriage didn't take long to crumble because her husband and she couldn't really connect as well with each other in light of her mother's cancer. Her whole family was coping with similar feelings of sorrow, but they could still not talk about it - anger was a common feeling Meghan experienced during that time.
Meghan O'Rourke writes a really wonderful memoir of grief itself. It's not intended to be a theoretical look at how humans mourn, instead it's just a first-person account of how she did, and yet somehow, it feels mostly familiar. Loss is not something that we respond well to. Like the author, I am terrified of death. She recounts many episodes from her life, when she was saddened by the concept of the impermanence of life. I remember myself growing up scared of the realization. I went through a phase when if my dad was even a few minutes late to return home, I would get paranoid. She understands that believing in the afterlife can possibly do wonders, but in today's world there are probably fewer people who believe in it.
The Long Goodbye is not overly depressing, even though death and grief figure in it. Although it's written in a very personal manner, I also found it to be detached, as if Meghan was writing it from a third person's perspective, as if we were watching it happen in front of us, so I rarely felt Meghan's grief pour over me. That helped because I was able to be objective about her experiences and understand grief as a separate entity. I was fascinated with how the author yearned to get better - she was convinced that rituals like those practiced in Jewish or Chinese homes, or even public mourning would ease the matter of accepting death sooner, even though I personally don't agree with that. She mentions how the American culture is largely stilted in its display of emotions. Grief might be shared, but it is also a largely private matter. I do think, however, that more people from across the world would share this sentiment - rituals are still practiced, but people are becoming increasingly lonely and private, and families nuclear. She also feels very antagonistic towards people who don't ask her the right questions or pretend that nothing's wrong. I remember how miserable I felt when people around me went on with their lives and just oohed and aahed when they saw me sad. Much as I resented that, I couldn't pretend that they were "ignorant". It is a sad reality that we rarely know how to respond to someone in grief, and rarely does anything we do ever look "right". It's always too much or too less.
For the most part, I thought this was a wonderful memoir. If you are truly curious about reading about grief, from a first person narrative, this is a good one. You may mourn in a very different way - some people are very open about it, and some excuse themselves often to have a private cry, but in so many ways, the elements of grief are very similar - the feeling of betrayal (because something precious was snatched away from you), denial, anticipating the worst and then being in shock when it actually happens, inability to connect with anyone new or form long relationships, and a desire to learn more about the person who left you. I did cry, after all the death of a mother is never an easy matter to read about, but mostly I was curious to know how the author handled it and the innumerable references she shared about others who have grieved.