The American poet Meghan O'Rourke's mother died on Christmas Day in 2008, two and a half years after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
The family had known the end was coming, though nothing could prepare them for the crushing absence, the sense of a world that had lost its colour, which assaulted them after she had gone. That her mother's death before hers was the natural order of things was no comfort to O'Rourke, who pinballed between a furious sense of injustice and a paralysing fear of her own isolation.
Thus, it was as much a coping mechanism as intellectual inquiry that led O'Rourke to record her experiences in this beautifully written and intensely poignant memoir. Her aim in it, she says, is to understand the notion of death and mourning in a secular society that can't agree on what, if anything, happens after we draw our last breath, and offers precious little ritual to comfort those left behind.
The book is in two parts. The first deals with her mother's illness – the nerve-shredding trips to hospital, the bewildering conversations with oncologists, the cancer-induced dementia – culminating in her eventual death at home. The second part focuses on the aftermath: namely the isolating, bottomless sorrow that is grief.
In the ensuing 18 months, landmarks come and go: the cremation, the scattering of ashes, birthdays, and the first anniversary of the death. O'Rourke starts a new job, dips in and out of relationships and takes trips away. Littered throughout the narrative are warm snapshots of her mother: diving into a lake during a camping holiday; examining spring buds on the branches of trees; chiding her daughter's seriousness. ("Lighten up, Meg!")
Throughout this period, O'Rourke struggles to function through a pain that laps back and forth in waves, prompting her to relive her loss over and over again. She is discomfortingly honest about the uglier aspects of grief – notably the self-absorption, neediness and fury of those caught up in it – and is laudably unconcerned about presenting herself in an unflattering light.
Equally as revealing as O'Rourke's response to her mother's death are those of the people around her, who try to impose a time limit on her mourning, or simply clam up in her presence. As Iris Murdoch once observed: "The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved", a fact illustrated by one of O'Rourke's boyfriends, who asks her for some reading material to help him understand her suffering.
Of course, O'Rourke never gets to the bottom of death, but in recounting her own experience, as well as that of assorted writers and psychologists, she goes some way to explaining why it makes us feel the way we do. The Long Goodbye is no self-help manual, and it is all the better for its reluctance to offer concrete answers. It is a personal account of the loss of innocence that comes with the death of a loved one, and how life is never the same again.