The Long Goodbye
Q: You write that nothing prepared you for the loss of your mother—even knowing that she was going to die. Did that surprise you?
A: Yes and no. When she was dying, I often tried to imagine what it would be like when she was dead. I said to myself: You have to prepare. But there really is no way to “prepare.” Imagining the loss is not absolute. It’s painful, but you can always look back at your mother’s face and think, “but she is still here.” The loss is absolute—it’s like entering a new world.
Q: You also write that you weren’t surprised that being a mourner was lonely. But you were surprised by how lost you felt. You didn’t really know what you were supposed to do, and neither did your friends and colleagues. Why do you think that is? Is that why you call grief “the last taboo” in our society?
A: I call grief the “last taboo” because it seems to me that Americans are very uncomfortable around the topic of death. I mean, it’s understandable. Who wants to think about it? And yet if we don’t, we’re cutting ourselves off from a huge part of our human legacy. Because of this discomfort, our ideas about what grief is are very simplistic, and we have few rituals that carve out space for it in everyday society. I am glad I didn’t have to wear black, I guess, but I wish that I had some way to demonstrate that I was in mourning. I didn’t. People place unreasonable demands on you just days after a death, or bump into you in the subway or are rude to you on the street and it can be very painful. All this is difficult not just for the mourner, but for his or her friends and colleagues. I think we all feel tremendous anxiety and conflict around losses a friend may experience. We want to help but we don’t know how to. We worry about saying the wrong thing. Sometimes we do say the wrong thing, or we avoid stepping up to the plate, and then we feel remorse.
Q: How involved were you with your mother’s care?
A: Pretty extensively. I helped her find her oncologist and other doctors, such as her pain specialist, and I went with her to various appointments at the hospital. In the last months of her life, the care became much more intimate. We had at-home hospice, which actually means that the family is doing a great deal of the medicating and soothing and caretaking. You witness and partake in things that would once have seemed difficult to imagine. It was much more intense than I’d envisioned. But, given that it had to happen, I wouldn’t do it any differently.