A Conversation with Meghan O’Rourke, author of
The Long Goodbye


Q: How did your relationship with your mother change during the time she was ill?


A: Oh, god. I’m still figuring that out. Let’s see—for one thing, we got closer; it was as if the normal web of adult distance that had grown between us was dismantled. And we became more emotionally (and physically) expressive. We hugged a lot more, and lay in bed together, and laughed a lot, like a mother and a little kid might. I still have dreams about this: that I’m looking at my mother, and I think, I should just be silly with her more, enjoy her presence.


Q: You write that after your mother’s death you were both unmothered and unmoored. What are the layers of connection there?


A: What shocked me after my mother’s death was how profoundly confused I felt about my place in the world. I do not have children, so I felt untethered generationally. Something about it just seemed wrong. That’s what I mean by unmoored. Your mother is your tether to the past and the future—she’s gone through things you haven’t yet; I always imagined she would be a strong part of my own life as a mother, should I become one. Now that was impossible. Also, the person who literally bore me into the world was gone. I kept imagining a portal in the sky closing up, like in a sci-fi movie. Now I was stuck on this alien planet alone.


Q: Your parents were both lapsed Catholics, and you grew up without religion. So there were no prescribed rituals for your family to follow when your mother died. One of your main themes, in fact, is the lack of ritual in today’s society to support mourners. What is the role of ritual in helping people to deal with grief, whether or not they are believers?


A: I think that ritual is a vessel in which to put your grief—it makes a social space for grief, rather than a private one. It reminds us though each of us suffer a personal grief, grief itself is human and universal—and can be unifying rather than isolating. Also, sometimes you don’t want to talk “about” your grief. You just want a place for it—you want recognition, not therapy, not psychological sharing.


Q: What rituals did you, along with your father and two brothers, improvise to help give shape to your grief?


A: I made up a lot of rituals having to do with walking in Prospect Park—a park she loved. I’d go there and try to be grateful for having had her as long as I did. On Sundays for a while I lit candles in her memory. On the anniversary of her death, we all scattered ashes in the ocean and in places she loved.


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