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


Q: You married your longtime boyfriend during your mother’s illness, but separated from him within a year and ultimately got a divorce.  Is it possible for you to say how your mother’s illness affected these events?


A: It’s very complicated, but I think that the pressure of watching my mother die made me search for an escape from other elements of my life. I wanted to create a kind of fantasy reality. In a way it’s like the search a heroine in a gothic novel might find herself making—leaving home, seeking the new.


Q: As part of your own grieving and your research for this book, you delved into the literature of grief.  What are some of the major works on grief? Which, if any, did you find particularly helpful?


A: I love C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, about the death of his wife. Strangely, Hamlet said the most to me about what it was like to be a mourner in the world—all the painful negotiations with others. I thought back, too, to Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which I’d read before my mother died. I found it very helpful to learn from studies like Erich Lindemann’s that grief is deeply physiological, not just emotional: It fatigues you and makes your mind fuzzier. And these effects can last for a long time. Before learning this, I’d just thought something was really “wrong” with me. What I was struck by, though, was how few firsthand accounts there were of modern grief—there was Didion’s and Lewis’s, but I hungered to read more.


Q: Did you find that the famous five stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross— denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—described your own experience?


A: Not at all. After my mother died people kept mentioning the stages to me. Or they would say, ‘You must be very angry.’ The truth was, I had moments of being angry (mostly if someone was rude to me in a store, say) but that was not my dominant emotion. The dominant emotion was yearning. I didn’t know what my place in the world was anymore. I was more sad than angry.


Q: After your mother’s death, you went through a period of questioning whether it was worth continuing to live. Also, you cite studies showing that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicidal thinking than the depressed.  What is the difference between grief and depression?


A: Apparently suicidal thinking is more common in grief than we might deduce from cultural representations of it. The key difference, according to psychiatrists, is that depression is a disease and/or an emotional state that has no clear-cut trigger. Grief has a clear-cut trigger, and, typically, passes. So it is not a disease, or a pathology, though it is in other ways as intense as depression, and shares some of its dangers.


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