Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for The Long Goodbye
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan coined the term “the long goodbye” in relationship to Alzheimer’s disease, referring to the long, arduous, and frequently slow progression of the disease that robs its victims of their memories and ability to interact meaningfully with their loved ones.
In her new memoir, The Long Goodbye, author Meghan O’Rourke employs the phrase to describe the long, painful, and slow process of mourning her mother, and the unexpected ways in which her grief impacted her in the days, weeks, and months following her mother’s death.
O’Rourke’s mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer in a hospital bed situated in the living room of the home in which O’Rourke and her two younger brothers had grown up. Her mother had been unconscious for the prior five days. But on Christmas Day 2008, as the lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and her husband and children opened their gifts, attempting to carry on with some sense of normalcy despite the circumstances, O’Rourke’s mother opened her eyes for a brief moment as if to say goodbye, and then was gone. She was only fifty-five years old.
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.
The Long Goodbye is a combination narrative of the details about her mother’s diagnosis, treatment, and death, and O’Rourke’s subsequent exploration of grief. O’Rourke ponders what it means to mourn in our society when so many of the rituals in which our ancestors engaged have been discarded, a large percentage of the population does not have a faith system or church home, and many families eschew the formalities that previous generations took for granted such as viewings, funerals, and a burial. Without familiar, accepted ritualistic processes, many people, including O’Rourke, feel adrift and unprepared to go on living following the death of someone dear to them.
O’Rourke has conducted extensive research about death and dying, including the stages of grief that were readily accepted as normal for so many years. Today, researchers are continuing to study the myriad ways in which people react to and cope with death, rejecting traditional assumptions in favor of new models of behavior. The reality is, as O’Rourke learned following the loss of her mother, that no two people grieve in precisely the same manner or behavioral sequence, but life can eventually return to normal. A new version of normal for a life forever changed by loss and grieving.
O’Rourke is a published poet, essayist, and critic. Not surprisingly, she is a sensitive, talented writer whose narrative is almost poetic and rhythmic. It is also candid without being sensational; emotionally raw without devolving into whining; heart-breakingly empathetic for readers who have, like O’Rourke, born the loss of one or both parents.
O’Rourke’s topic is intensely personal and, for that reason, there is no right or wrong to be found in this story. The first portion of the book is devoted to telling the story of her mother’s diagnosis — stage 3 colorectal cancer — and successful treatment. She went into remission — the doctors could find no trace of cancer anywhere in her body — and O’Rourke proceeded with the wedding she had been planning to the man with whom she had already been living for several years. Her mother marveled, and gave thanks for her restored good health and ability to resume work, as well as be part of the wedding ceremony, but the family’s joy was short-lived. Her mother relapsed, the cancer metastasized to her liver and, eventually, hip and brain, and O’Rourke’s marriage fell apart within a few months.
The second portion of the book is devoted to O’Rourke’s experiences in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death. She laments the fact that we have, as a society, abandoned many of the rituals that were expected and brought comfort to prior generations. When her mother died, O’Rourke, her father and brothers, did not know what to do. Her mother’s body was removed and cremated. They debated about whether to hold a memorial service. They lacked traditions and procedures that would give them something to do in the hours and days right after her mother’s death. What O’Rourke does not acknowledge is that her family lacked a pastor, priest, rabbi or other spiritual adviser to lead them through those days, and no faith family upon which to lean for support and comfort.
Although our culture that 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.~ Author Meghan O’Rourke
Readers who have mourned a loved one will recognize and relate to O’Rourke’s yearning for her mother — the dominant emotion following such a loss, by most accounts — and the way her life used to be, the way her family used to interact. She became obsessed with nostalgia, an oft-described phenomenon. O’Rourke withdrew socially, not wanting to go out with friends, and found herself experiencing forgetfulness from time to time. She also dreamed about her mother and sensed her presence in various locations. She came to realize that after experiencing such a profound loss, the one who mourns must “learn to believe the dead one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally.” The reality of death, O’Rourke found, can penetrate one’s consciousness unexpectedly, suddenly bringing back the exquisitely painful feelings all over again, almost in the same way that the initial shock of loss was perceived and felt. And there are the milestones, as O’Rourke discovered. Those “firsts” in the year following the death of a loved one — first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, etc. — can be profoundly difficult.
In an effort to embrace her new identity, O’Rourke sought out a metaphor for her new self, a self without a mother, but found there is no word to describe a person who has lost one parent — “orphan” does not apply when the other parent is still alive. A few months after her mother’s death, O’Rourke found herself experiencing a “permanently transitional quality: you are neither accustomed to [the loss] nor in its fresh pangs.” But as the months passed, she learned that moving on with her life was “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.”
Eventually, O’Rourke also came to understand that those who are left behind mourn not only the loss of the person who died, but the loss of the person the mourner was when the loved one was alive. That may be, O’Rourke wisely relates, “what affects you most.” The mourner must grow into the new person that they will be for the rest of their life without the one they have lost. It is not easy, especially in the case of the unique mother-daughter bond.
The beauty of The Long Goodbye lies in its straight-forward, simple truths. Readers who have lost a loved one will find many similarities between their own experiences and O’Rourke’s. And for that reason, The Long Goodbye will bring comfort and solace to readers who recognize their own feelings reflected in O’Rourke’s and understand that what they experienced was completely normal. There is no time limit on grief; there is no expiration date on sorrow. Mourning the loss of a parent is, as O’Rourke found and her readers will attest, a process. An ongoing process that lasts the rest of the mourner’s life. The transformation O’Rourke describes is an integral part of that ongoing process and the search for the new “normal” that characterizes the future.
The Long Goodbye is often difficult to read because of the transparent and honest manner in which O’Rourke describes her journey. But it is worthwhile reading, especially for anyone who wants to better understand the process of grieving and seeks validation of their own feelings of loss, despair, and yearning for a lost loved one.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Long Goodbye free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Enter to Win a Copy of The Long Goodbye
One lucky reader, selected at random, will receive a copy of The Long Goodbye, graciously provided by the author.
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