How We Grieve: Meghan O’Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss
“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”
By Maria Popova
John Updike wrote in his memoir, “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” And yet even if we were to somehow make peace with our own mortality, a primal and soul-shattering fear rips through whenever we think about losing those we love most dearly — a fear that metastasizes into all-consuming grief when loss does come. In The Long Goodbye (public library), her magnificent memoir of grieving her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke crafts a masterwork of remembrance and reflection woven of extraordinary emotional intelligence. A poet, essayist, literary critic, and one of the youngest editors the New Yorker has ever had, she tells a story that is deeply personal in its details yet richly resonant in its larger humanity, making tangible the messy and often ineffable complexities that anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows all too intimately, all too anguishingly. What makes her writing — her mind, really — particularly enchanting is that she brings to this paralyzingly difficult subject a poet’s emotional precision, an essayist’s intellectual expansiveness, and a voracious reader’s gift for apt, exquisitely placed allusions to such luminaries of language and life as Whitman, Longfellow, Tennyson, Swift, and Dickinson (“the supreme poet of grief”).
When we are learning the world, we know things we cannot say how we know. When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason.
Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.
When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.
Finding solace in Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful meditation on our humanity, O’Rourke returns to her own journey:
The otherworldliness of loss was so intense that at times I had to believe it was a singular passage, a privilege of some kind, even if all it left me with was a clearer grasp of our human predicament. It was why I kept finding myself drawn to the remote desert: I wanted to be reminded of how the numinous impinges on ordinary life.
Reflecting on her struggle to accept her mother’s loss — her absence, “an absence that becomes a presence” — O’Rourke writes:
If children learn through exposure to new experiences, mourners unlearn through exposure to absence in new contexts. Grief requires acquainting yourself with the world again and again; each “first” causes a break that must be reset… And so you always feel suspense, a queer dread—you never know what occasion will break the loss freshly open.
She later adds:
After a loss, you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.
Among the most chilling effects of grief is how it reorients us toward ourselves as it surfaces our mortality paradox and the dawning awareness of our own impermanence. O’Rourke’s words ring with the profound discomfort of our shared existential bind:
The dread of death is so primal, it overtakes me on a molecular level. In the lowest moments, it produces nihilism. If I am going to die, why not get it over with? Why live in this agony of anticipation?
I was unable to push these questions aside: What are we to do with the knowledge that we die? What bargain do you make in your mind so as not to go crazy with fear of the predicament, a predicament none of us knowingly chose to enter? You can believe in God and heaven, if you have the capacity for faith. Or, if you don’t, you can do what a stoic like Seneca did, and push away the awfulness by noting that if death is indeed extinction, it won’t hurt, for we won’t experience it. “It would be dreadful could it remain with you; but of necessity either it does not arrive or else it departs,” he wrote.
If this logic fails to comfort, you can decide, as Plato and Jonathan Swift did, that since death is natural, and the gods must exist, it cannot be a bad thing. As Swift said, “It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by Providence as an evil to mankind.” And Socrates: “I am quite ready to admit … that I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good.” But this is poor comfort to those of us who have no gods to turn to. If you love this world, how can you look forward to departing it? Rousseau wrote, “He who pretends to look on death without fear lies. All men are afraid of dying, this is the great law of sentient beings, without which the entire human species would soon be destroyed.”
And yet, O’Rourke arrives at the same conclusion that Alan Lightman did in his sublime meditation on our longing for permanence as she writes:
Without death our lives would lose their shape: “Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Or as a character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise says, “I think it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” It’s not clear that DeLillo means us to agree, but I think I do. I love the world more because it is transient.
One would think that living so proximately to the provisional would ruin life, and at times it did make it hard. But at other times I experienced the world with less fear and more clarity. It didn’t matter if I was in line for an extra two minutes. I could take in the sensations of color, sound, life. How strange that we should live on this planet and make cereal boxes, and shopping carts, and gum! That we should renovate stately old banks and replace them with Trader Joe’s! We were ants in a sugar bowl, and one day the bowl would empty.
This awareness of our transience, our minuteness, and the paradoxical enlargement of our aliveness that it produces seems to be the sole solace from grief’s grip, though we all arrive at it differently. O’Rourke’s father approached it from another angle. Recounting a conversation with him one autumn night — one can’t help but notice the beautiful, if inadvertent, echo of Carl Sagan’s memorable words — O’Rourke writes:
“The Perseid meteor showers are here,” he told me. “And I’ve been eating dinner outside and then lying in the lounge chairs watching the stars like your mother and I used to” — at some point he stopped calling her Mom — “and that helps. It might sound strange, but I was sitting there, looking up at the sky, and I thought, ‘You are but a mote of dust. And your troubles and travails are just a mote of a mote of dust.’ And it helped me. I have allowed myself to think about things I had been scared to think about and feel. And it allowed me to be there — to be present. Whatever my life is, whatever my loss is, it’s small in the face of all that existence… The meteor shower changed something. I was looking the other way through a telescope before: I was just looking at what was not there. Now I look at what is there.”
O’Rourke goes on to reflect on this ground-shifting quality of loss:
It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.
In one of the most beautiful passages in the book, O’Rourke captures the spiritual sensemaking of death in an anecdote that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s account of a “transcendent experience” and Alan Watt’s consolation in the oneness of the universe. She writes:
Before we scattered the ashes, I had an eerie experience. I went for a short run. I hate running in the cold, but after so much time indoors in the dead of winter I was filled with exuberance. I ran lightly through the stripped, bare woods, past my favorite house, poised on a high hill, and turned back, flying up the road, turning left. In the last stretch I picked up the pace, the air crisp, and I felt myself float up off the ground. The world became greenish. The brightness of the snow and the trees intensified. I was almost giddy. Behind the bright flat horizon of the treescape, I understood, were worlds beyond our everyday perceptions. My mother was out there, inaccessible to me, but indelible. The blood moved along my veins and the snow and trees shimmered in greenish light. Suffused with joy, I stopped stock-still in the road, feeling like a player in a drama I didn’t understand and didn’t need to. Then I sprinted up the driveway and opened the door and as the heat rushed out the clarity dropped away.
I’d had an intuition like this once before, as a child in Vermont. I was walking from the house to open the gate to the driveway. It was fall. As I put my hand on the gate, the world went ablaze, as bright as the autumn leaves, and I lifted out of myself and understood that I was part of a magnificent book. What I knew as “life” was a thin version of something larger, the pages of which had all been written. What I would do, how I would live — it was already known. I stood there with a kind of peace humming in my blood.
A non-believer who had prayed for the first time in her life when her mother died, O’Rourke quotes Virginia Woolf’s luminous meditation on the spirit and writes:
This is the closest description I have ever come across to what I feel to be my experience. I suspect a pattern behind the wool, even the wool of grief; the pattern may not lead to heaven or the survival of my consciousness — frankly I don’t think it does — but that it is there somehow in our neurons and synapses is evident to me. We are not transparent to ourselves. Our longings are like thick curtains stirring in the wind. We give them names. What I do not know is this: Does that otherness — that sense of an impossibly real universe larger than our ability to understand it — mean that there is meaning around us?
I have learned a lot about how humans think about death. But it hasn’t necessarily taught me more about my dead, where she is, what she is. When I held her body in my hands and it was just black ash, I felt no connection to it, but I tell myself perhaps it is enough to still be matter, to go into the ground and be “remixed” into some new part of the living culture, a new organic matter. Perhaps there is some solace in this continued existence.
I think about my mother every day, but not as concertedly as I used to. She crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone.
The Long Goodbye is a remarkable read in its entirety — the kind that speaks with gentle crispness to the parts of us we protect most fiercely yet long to awaken most desperately. Complement it with Alan Lightman in finding solace in our impermanence and Tolstoy on finding meaning in a meaningless world.
Published June 9, 2014