Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye”

As with many books, the cover of Meghan O’Rourke’s  memoir drew me in. I don’t necessarily judge a book by it’s cover, but let’s be honest – I mostly judge a book by its cover. It’s simple design, with a quick-sketched look, made me feel as if I would be looking directly into the diary of O’Rourke. Indeed, it was very nearly like being a perched bird on O’Rourke’s shoulder as she watches her mother die due to colorectal cancer.

As if you couldn’t already tell from the topic, this book is not the summer beach read you’re looking for. You will probably cry because it’s about family, and then that family is irrevocably changed by death. O’Rourke is deft at letting us into her world and describing exactly what it’s like to lose one’s mother, exact in the way that it is universal. O’Rourke focuses on the little things, memories of going to the beach or going shopping with her mother, the things that all of us experience with loved ones, moments that weren’t trying to be anything but that nevertheless stick with us.

O’Rourke, as a former
editor for Slate magazine, takes a journalistic approach to death at times. She admits to feeling unmoored and depressed after her mother’s death, unable to cope and move past it. She wonders at Western beliefs of grief and mourning, which basically amount to bearing your pain silently and moving on as quickly as possible. This spares others around you from those uncomfortable conversations about how sad you must be and oh, well, at least you got to say goodbye. O’Rourke is not comforted by this thought and is frequently angry at co-workers and friends for their seeming lack of sympathy. Really, though, discomfort with expressing sympathy in these situations points to our lack of a cultural norm on how to deal with death.

Ultimately, O’Rourke’s superb, precise language keep this memoir moving through both personal and public commentaries. And I mean moving in the sense of speeding through – I read this book in two days. Why did I spend the last days of summer engrossed in a book about death? O’Rourke definitely has a gift for story-telling, and yes, her language is part of the whole package that results in beautifully worded passages. After the cover lured me in, reading the first few pages convinced me it was a keeper. But part of me wanted to know more about that inevitable end to everyone’s life story. I haven’t lost many people close to me, and not since the age of six or seven. Death is a topic we avoid as much as possible, something we Americans definitely do not think about by choice. But I think that’s a mistake; as a culture, we come to the topic of death wholly unprepared. Our ignorance is not a preventative measure, but might only make the event harder for everyone involved (except, of course, the person who is dead. They have very little feeling on the matter anymore).

All this to say: Read O’Rourke’s memoir. You’ll experience the emotional ups and downs of losing a loved one, but come out the other side feeling strangely more whole, more in touch with the reality that we will all cease to be a part of one day. That’s the benefit of thinking about death – you’ll realize what you have right now, and be grateful for it.

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