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.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Death of a Mother




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

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

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

Many grief memoirs either dwell in the emotional excesses of the experience or sway to the other side and become the thinking person’s guide to intellectually understanding grief. As if this were possible.

The strength of Meghan’s books is that she deals with both the head and the heart. She speaks about death directly and faces her doubts, fears, and depression. This type of grief account is rare. Too often what the author feels is covered over by how she think she should feel, and often, too, the personal devastation is set aside for pie-in-the-sky piety that does little to help anyone work their way through grief.

Meghan wonders what gave her the right to write about grief, since only one person close to her has died. Grief is intensely personal, but it is also a universal experience.

Not only does Meghan have the right to share, but we need her insights because society has forgotten how to speak about grief. In 2011 there weren’t many people writing accurately and insightfully about grief, although this was slowly beginning to change. In larger cities, small networks began to form of people, mostly young people, who were willing to speak openly and honestly about grief. For them, their parents’ way of coping with grief didn’t work. And because their friends hadn’t lost anyone yet, and didn’t know what to say, they began to look and find people who did.

Shortly after O’Rourke’s memoir was published, her companion book of grief poems was released. While the poems parallel her prose journey, the language and rich images of poetry offer a different, and sharper, way of expressing and understanding grief. You can set the two books next to each other and read both at the same time to experience the full depth of Meghan’s loss.

Meghan’s poems take us inside her mourning, and we see grief’s 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, a 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 still pushes its way back in at random moments.

She details the currents that run through grief — its 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. Meghan’s poems are reflective and full of striking images that draw us in. Sometimes another detail would have helped me understand what was going on. Now and then I wanted a 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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