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


Q: What is the difference between “normal” grief and “complicated” or pathological grief, which might require the help of medical and psychological professionals?


A: “Normal” grief is quite intense. It can involve hallucinations, sleeplessness, food disorders, and extreme sorrow and yearning. Yet these symptoms are to some degree “natural.” Left to its own devices, normal grief begins to ebb after six months or so. Complicated or pathological grief does not. It can deeply interfere with a mourner’s life. It tends to last longer. The bereaved person doesn’t adjust easily back to the world. And so in complicated grief, therapy and medication are called for as they may not be in normal grief. Of course, to the mourner, all these things may seem like approximate labels for an experience that’s much more complex, nuanced, and personal.


Q: Studies show that some things help people deal with grief. What are they?


A: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what might “help.” Rather, certain things are indicators of complicated grief, and might cue friends and family to advocate counseling for the bereaved. In particular, refusing to change the lost one’s room in any way—preserving the study of a husband as it was, or the bedroom of a child—correlates to complicated grief. Some studies have shown that rituals help mourners move through their grief. In China, for example, where there are many inscribed rituals for the dead, mourners manifest fewer physiological effects such as illness in the year after a death.


Q: Grieving is not only about the loss of another person, of course. It also raises the issue of our own mortality.  How powerful was that aspect of grief for you?


A: Very, very powerful. It has changed my sense of what life is about, and given me a palpable sense of its transience. This change is for me the most enduring aspect of loss.


Q: When did you begin to emerge from the most acute stage of your grief and reengage with the world? What brought that about?


A: Sometime around the anniversary of my mother’s death, on Christmas, I began to feel a little better. Having gotten through the first year, the first set of holidays—that was a huge change. But it wasn’t until completing a draft of the book in April that I really felt “better.” I think the book was my version of saying kaddish.


Q: What was your aim in writing this book? What do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Writing served as my mourning ritual. I had a kind of obsessive need to commemorate and externalize what I was experiencing. On the one hand, the experience was very private. On the other, I hoped that what I was doing would help other mourners—that in it they might find a description of the feelings and sensations and displacements they felt. After my mother died, I was eager for firsthand accounts of grief in real time (like C. S. Lewis’s), accounts that might guide me a bit, and was surprised by how few there were. The book I wanted to read about losing a parent didn’t seem to exist.


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