Nine months after his mother’s death, Roland Barthes made a brief entry to his diary of mourning: “Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering.” In the notes that make up his Mourning Diary, Barthes reflected on the particularity of an individual’s experience of loss, lamenting at once the “egoism” separating the mourner from others and the absence of social rituals that could lift the mourner out of his solitude and make his suffering more comprehensible. Even in his frustration with French society for its failure to externalize mourning, as “all judicious societies” have done, Barthes was able to endure his sorrow by putting it into words: “My suffering is inexpressible but all the same utterable, speakable.” Suffering at one’s own rhythm does not mean suffering silently.
In her searching, elegant memoir The Long Goodbye (Riverhead, 320 pages, $25.95), out next month, the poet Meghan O’Rourke describes just the same tension between outer and inner inherent in the experience of loss. Confronting the problem of suffering being inexpressible yet utterable, she gives an emphatically public account of her grief after her mother’s death at 55. Ms. O’Rourke tells the story of her mother’s battle against cancer, crafting an intimate portrait of a family in its greatest joy and worst agony. Barbara O’Rourke emerges as an extraordinarily strong and loving mother, magnetic and demanding. “Like a fool, I fell in love with you,” Ms. O’Rourke thinks, after her diagnosis. “But you were always likely to die first.”
For all her mother’s vividness, the book is not about her life; it’s about Ms. O’Rourke’s own struggle to make her way through extreme and lasting sadness. This struggle is deeply personal, but Ms. O’Rourke insists that her difficulty is also the result of our culture treating grief as a private psychological process, leaving us without language and social rituals to guide us. Asserting that “in our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent,” Ms. O’Rourke moves deftly between recording her particular experience of disorientation and loneliness and analyzing our general cultural obsession with accepting loss–letting go, moving on–and intolerance for prolonged or complicated sadness. Friends are presumptuously sympathetic or awkwardly evasive; lovers are inexplicably distant or inconveniently needy. But, Ms. O’Rourke suggests, it’s not really their fault; the inadequacy of their support is symptomatic of a cultural uneasiness with death, with total loss.
In the year after her mother’s death, Ms. O’Rourke finds that nothing has prepared her for her grief, least of all language. She feels “heartsickness, like the sadness you feel after a breakup, but many times stronger and more desperate.” She seeks a new vocabulary, turning to metaphors to capture her specific loss: Her mother is the wind, her loss is an amputation, her mourning is a tree growing around an obstruction, but she finds such substitutions unsatisfying. She dutifully reads clinical literature on grief, but uses its terms warily. She points out that we don’t have a word for having lost a parent, only “orphan” for having lost both. She surveys great works dealing with death, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Proust to Woolf, and incorporates poetry with great facility.
Ms. O’Rourke’s relationship to language throughout the book reflects her ambivalence about communicating her experience in the first place. As strongly as she calls for a shared language and shared rituals to work against the idea that grief is private, or that it’s universally surmountable, she refuses to portray her grief as representative, as anything but hers. “I am writing about my grief, of course,” she says, not “because I think it was more extreme, more unusual, more special than anyone else’s.” Her voice wavers between startlingly beautiful turns of phrase and aggressive repetition, establishing a vocabulary for loss that is at once idiosyncratic and prescriptive.
For Ms. O’Rourke, the problem with communicating grief is not just that the intensity of emotion exceeds the language that serves as its vehicle. It’s also that seeing or hearing our feelings in language makes us feel guilty for having expressed them at all. Opening up a cut on her arm with an “ivory-handled dinner knife” one night, Ms. O’Rourke realizes that she wants “to create some embodiment of the heartbreak eating me up.” But while self-mutilation is obviously not the solution to the incommunicability of her grief, what this graphic episode illustrates is the particular experience of wanting emotions that feel too intense for language. Ms. O’Rourke finds this incident “clarifying,” but leaves it to the reader to understand how grief and self-punishment relate to each other in the mind of the writer.
Ms. O’Rourke is not alone in wanting to connect grief and guilt. Just weeks after his mother’s suicide, Austrian writer Peter Handke declares in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams that the worst thing for him would be sympathy: “I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real.” What moves Mr. Handke to write is an almost physiological desperation: He has experienced moments of “dull speechlessness” and needs to “formulate” them, to let the horror startle him out of insensibility and into speech, even if it contains or reduces his suffering. Ms. O’Rourke does not venture to this level of reflection on the violence involved in turning the inexpressible into something utterable.
As an act of communication that is at times resistant to the idea of communicating, The Long Goodbye is caught between two impulses: arguing that we lack a social structure for dealing with loss, and telling a story about loss that reveals a rich European and American cultural inheritance for talking about death and mourning. Ms. O’Rourke is better when telling her own story, which is itself a story of confronting a cultural lack, than when commenting directly on a “silence” that, given the plenitude of sources she cites, including Joan Didion’s and Barthes’ recent books, isn’t as pervasive as she suggests.
While Ms. O’Rourke may argue that America’s silence and uneasiness around the sadness of death makes grief an unnecessarily long and painful process for many, she is surprisingly reticent on the subject of another loss she suffers: divorce. Ms. O’Rourke and her longtime boyfriend marry shortly after her mother’s diagnosis, but they separate only eight months later. “It is impossible for me to know whether–or to what degree–the separation was an expression of my grief,” she writes early in the book. She dates other men before and after her mother’s death, struggling to form intimacy in a time of isolation.
It is only when she sees an attractive young woman, married and with children, visiting her own dying mother in the hospital, and feels “a flicker of envy, of what-might-have-been,” that she admits her loss: “Your grief is not like mine, I thought spitefully. You’re going home to your family. I am newly divorced. I have no family. All I have is this.” Ms. O’Rourke suffers a double loss, divorce and death, but her focus on death and her project of cultural analysis prevent her from attempting any comparison between the two kinds of loss, even though she describes both forms of attachment with the same words. By privileging death as the only real loss and treating the pain of breaking up as a mere byproduct, she misses the chance to explore the relationship between absence and loss, between social death and death itself.
Ms. O’Rourke writes passionately and intelligently about losing and feeling lost, and she argues convincingly for making mourning a more formally public process. But The Long Goodbye is split in two, a memoir trying to be cultural criticism, and cultural c
riticism excusing itself from depth in the name of individual experience. It wrenches the heart, and it raises urgent questions about death in a secular, therapeutic culture, but it leaves its fundamental assumptions about loss–how it feels, what to do about it, which kinds matter–unexamined.