Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Death of a Mother




Books: Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye: A Memoir; Once: Poems

In 2011, Meghan O’Rourke published two books about her mother’s last year of dying from cancer and Meghan’s first years of grief.

They are honest. They are unflinching. They blend emotions and stories of her mother with research and theories from psychology about the grieving process.

Many grief memoirs either dwell in the emotional tsunami of the experience or they sway to the other side and become the thinking person’s guide to intellectually understanding the philosophical and sociological constructs of grief.

Too often what the authors feel is covered over by how they think they should feel. And often the personal devastation is set aside for pie-in-the-sky piety that does little to help anyone else work their way through grief. The strength of Meghan’s books is that she explores with both head and heart. She speaks about death directly and faces her doubts, fears, and despair.

Meghan wondered what gave her the right to write about grief, since this was the first person close to her who died. While every death is intensely personal, it is also a universal experience and the accounts of these journeys speak to others.

Not only does Meghan have the right to share, but we need her insights because society has forgotten how to speak about grief. When Meghan was writing, there weren’t many people writing accurately or insightfully about grief, although this was beginning to change. In larger cities, small networks began to form, mostly of young people in their 20s and 30s who were willing to speak openly and honestly about grief. Their parents’ way of coping with grief didn’t work for them, and because their friends hadn’t lost anyone yet and didn’t know what to say, they didn’t have anyone to talk to, so they began to searching for people who understood.

While her poems parallel her prose journey, their language and images offer a different, and, at times, richer way of expressing grief. You can set the two books next to each other and read both at the same time to experience the full trauma of Meghan’s loss.

Meghan’s poems take us inside her mourning, and we see the landscape of images that were important to her. We can feel what she feels. There are touching poems of relationships coming apart, poems of lethargy, depression, and listlessness that would not leave, and poems about risky behaviors as she tries different ways to regain control of her life.

The poem, “Magnolia,” provides a good insight into how grief moves. Although Meghan feels ready to move on at this point, and signs of normal life have finally begun to return, grief keeps pushing its way back in and hijacking her at random moments.


She details the currents that run through grief — the powerful surges that toss her around, the unseen movements that flow beneath the surface stillness, and the swirling pools that catch her and won’t let go. The poems are reflective and full of images, but sometimes another detail would have helped me understand what was going on. Now and then I simply wanted an uncontrolled burst of raw emotion.

While the canon of grief literature is long, there haven’t been many notable books of contemporary grief poetry. The recent books  that I like include Sandra Gilbert’s Aftermath; Anne Carson’s Nox, which blends poetry and prose; Mary Oliver’s Thirst; Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven; Claribel Alegria’s Sorrow; Donald Hall’s Without (who also wrote a memoir of his wife dying); and Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge. Once is a valuable addition.


You can read my review of Once in Rain Taxi Review of Books - www.raintaxi.com/once/ .

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