When I read the excerpt from this book in The New Yorker a couple years ago, I wasn’t particularly drawn to read the whole thing. But a copy showed up in a giveaway pile at work, and I wound up turning to it between library holds. I thought I’d put it aside when something else came along but instead wound up determined to ﬁnish, staying up late to get to the end.
O’Rourke is primarily a poet, though I feel that comes through in her prose in relatively small doses. The early chapters read almost like journal entries: the writing is raw both in the sense that her emotions are on full display and that the text is presented seemingly as it was originally written, with minimal edits. The book rambles through O’Rourke’s grief process, including reference to various texts she turned to in an attempt to approach the experience in a scholarly fashion. I think that it could have used a bit more narrative structure beyond the loose chronology of her mother’s illness, death, and about a year of grief aftermath. Somehow even her melancholy remembrances and the struggles in her life during the grief process take on a clinical tone.
The ironic aspect of this book is there’s a recurring theme of O’Rourke ﬁnding that she doesn’t relate to various grief philosophies (especially Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, as outlined in On Death and Dying), and as someone who has also lost their mother, I didn’t entirely relate to her experiences either. There is a part where she declares, “Periodically for the rest of my life, my mother’s death will seem like it took place yesterday.” This is not something I ﬁnd to be true, nearly ten years after my loss. I couldn’t help but recall emotions I felt years ago that at the time seemed solid and lasting but now, nearly ten years after my loss, have muted incredibly. But I also had no expectation that I would hold onto those feelings indeﬁnitely. These things can shift and cycle, but O’Rourke is capturing the intensity of the early period of someone dealing with a “complicated” grief. Part of her complication may be that she is holding on to everything so hard.
Yet there were ideas I found interesting, particularly when she delves into how experiencing a loss can bring the anxiety of mortality to the surface and shares philosophies that try to quell these overwhelming fears. In particular:
…you can do what a stoic like Seneca did, and push away the awfulness by noting that if death is indeed extinction, it won’t hurt, for we won’t experience it. “It would be dreadful could it remain with you; but of necessity either it does not arrive or else it departs,” he wrote.