Even after writing a memoir about her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke ’97 still grapples over what the grieving process should look like.
O’Rourke, author of the memoir “The Long Goodbye” and the poem collections “Half-Life” and “Once,” answered questions about her memoir and her writing process from Emily Bazelon LAW ’00, a senior editor at Slate Magazine and a fellow at the Yale Law School. Held as an informal discussion, the discussion took place in the Davenport common room and attracted over 30 students and faculty members.
After her mother’s death on Christmas in 2007, O’Rourke said she was struck by her own response, which was nothing like the five stages of grief that she had been told to expect.
“People would always come up and ask me, ‘What stage of grief are you in? The anger stage?’ They always asked about the anger stage,” she laughed.
But the grieving process wasn’t so clear-cut for O’Rourke. She talked about the awkwardness she experienced when friends did not know how to be around her. No one knew what to say, she said, which made her reflect on the lack of defined rituals and etiquette surrounding death.
O’Rourke described how she spent the evening after the funeral: “I thought, ‘Now what?’ So I read ‘Twilight,’” she said. “Someone had given it to me. It was long and easy and I didn’t have to think at all. I remember thinking it was bad, but that was all.”
Seeing that she couldn’t focus on the assignments she was supposed to write, O’Rourke’s editor at Slate encouraged her to turn to more personal pieces. The first of these, a column on the loneliness of grieving, drew over 250 email responses. O’Rourke continued to write about the mourning process for Slate, and when a book editor approached her, she began “The Long Goodbye.”
She said the book helped her cope with her grief and re-establish her identity, of which she felt unsure after the monumental loss of her mother, who she called a key figure in her life.
Ultimately, O’Rourke said, the book was her effort to create a work of art that other people could relate to and use as a vehicle to understand their own grief.
“I was trying to make an artful object out of what had happened,” she said. “A lot of the memoir was sketchy so the reader could project onto it some of the specific things from their home life or their experience. My experience was meant to be present enough to connect to the reader, but not so present that it was the only thing to connect to.”
O’Rourke said she especially had trouble writing about her brothers and father — though they gave their consent before she wrote the book, she felt she was turning them into characters and betraying them.
Five students interviewed afterward said they were surprised and moved by O’Rourke’s candid account of her past few years.
“I thought it was really fascinating to see how she actually productively used that emotional trauma,” Sofia Nicholson ’14 said. “I’ve used writing as a form of therapy, and it’s incredibly difficult to make it into an actual artistic piece instead of just a melodramatic journal entry.”
Fabian Fernandez ’15 praised O’Rourke’s ability to connect with the audience and discuss such a universal yet sensitive topic.
“My grandmother passed away this spring, and to hear O’Rourke’s experience of how she dealt with grief and the awkwardness of talking to other people about your loss was so interesting,” he said.
O’Rourke, Bazelon and Hanna Rosin are the co-founders of DoubleX, a site on Slate about women’s issues.