The Long Goodbye: An Open Letter to Meghan O’Rourke

Dear Meghan,

I feel like I should start this letter with an apology. Someone told me of The Long Goodbye shortly after it came out, explaining how much I would love it and telling me that I had to read it.  “You will relate to her so much,” she told me, “you will love her writing style, I promise.” I made a mental note.  But let me be honest, I remember thinking that your book was probably just another mediocre grief memoir. I had read dozens of them, had dozens more recommended to me, and yours was just another to add to the list.  I ordered it on Amazon and added it to my obscenely excessive bookshelf of grief literature. I figured I would get around to reading it one day, but other books kept bumping you in line: academic books about grief, National Book Award winners, book club reads, The Hunger Games trilogy.  You know how it goes.

Though I haven’t gone back through my Amazon history to verify this  (I try not to open that too often, lest my husband realize exactly how much money I spend on books) I am fairly sure by the time I packed your book for my recent vacation I had owned it for well over two years.  So here is my apology to you, Meghan: I am sorry I assumed your book was ‘just another grief memoir’.  I am sorry I let it sit on my shelf for two years, collecting dust between stacks of grief journals that weren’t worth writing in and other grief memoirs that I’d struggled to finish.

I realize I am painfully late to the game here. I am aware your fan club is well-established, that The New York Times and The Guardian sang your praises years ago. But it feels my duty as a griever, a grief blogger, a woman who lost a parent, a mental health professional, and someone who feels crazy almost as often as she feels sane, to express in writing just how much I loved your book.

I have hesitated to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard, whatever) because I am just not sure where to begin. It should be noted that I am not known for adoration.  Quite the opposite, I have a tendency to be just a little bit critical, a teensy bit cynical, and a wee bit jaded.  I read your four-sentence bio on the back of the book and immediately assumed, between your job at Slate, your background as a poet, and your residence in Brooklyn, that your pretension would put me off after just a few chapters.  That is what made it all the more amazing when, 100 pages into your book, I finally took a break from reading just to tell my husband and two friends that they needed to read the book as soon as I finished it.

I have too many pages dog-eared and too many notes in the margins to cover all of the reasons I love The Long Goodbye. Like with any good memoir, I suppose what I love is the brutal, painful, and sometimes funny honesty.  The reality that death is rarely what we think it will be, and grief is far more complex than we ever expect.  It can be spending final weeks together watching Lost, trying to wrap your mind around the idea that, with so little time left together, you watching Lost.  It is buying new clothes, with so little time to wear them.  It is the reality that you can talk about a ‘good death’ til the cows come home, but a ‘good death’ is still a death . . . “Soon we need the walker. Then we need the toilet adjuster, because we can’t lift her off the seat. Then we need the diapers. I’m glad we have hospice. But as Liam puts it, ‘my friends keep saying how great it is that we have hospice. And I want to say, have you done it? It’s not exactly a cozy picnic. The word sounds so nice, like hospitality, but the reality is awful.’ Yet it’s far better than the alternative, we know.”

Your grief is not pretty, not perfect, not graceful, because no one’s grief is pretty, or perfect, or graceful.  Grieving women everywhere could understand when you rushed to marry your boyfriend before your mom died. We could sympathize with your divorce months later, your fling with your high school boyfriend, and I suspect most of us spent page after page silently thanking you for an honesty that makes us feel just a little less alone.

I sought the writing of philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to make sense of my own loss and my grief in the early days.  I saw so much of my grief in yours – the quest for understanding that is somehow comforting, while never actually taking away any pain. We can understand our grief through and through, but it doesn’t change the chaos and the yearning. Perhaps your friend Maureen said it best, “And just because you can talk about your grief, you know . . . doesn’t mean you’re in control of it, or that you know what’s going on. . . . While you may be able to analyze your grief at three pm, that has nothing to do with how you feel at three am, in the dark center of the night.”

In the end, I suppose I love your books for the reason that anyone loves a grief memoir — because I found so much I could relate to. Because you are honest about your crazy in a way that many people are not. Maybe because I thought we should be grief friends – your balance of reason, emotion, crazy, funny, and existential crisis is exactly what Eleanor and I look for in a grief friend, in fact. At the end of the day, who knows why any form of self-expression speaks to another person? What I do know is that I’m glad your book is no longer collecting dust on my shelf, but instead is filled with notes in the margins and dog-eared pages.  I am glad it will now be at the top of my list of grief-memoir-recommends, among classics like A Grief Observed and The Year of Magical Thinking.  I am glad I got to know some small piece of you and some small piece of your mom through your amazing work.

Sincerely,
Litsa

March 28, 2017

7 responses on "The Long Goodbye: An Open Letter to Meghan O'Rourke"

  1. Dear Litsa, I love this site, the articles and the comments. It has helped me immensely in the past few months after the death of my Mum, my best friend, another friend, my inoperable lung cancer diagnosis & treatment, my brothers kidney cancer diagnosis & treatment, my relationship breakup, then my best mates sudden death, all in the past year… As a nurse who worked in Palliative Care in the community, I have had a crash course in what grief really is…The good news is my cancer is in remission, as is my brothers, but I am still unable to return to work as I have nothing to give anyone outside of my “bubble”…another article I read today that was so great! I am off to order ‘The Long Goodbye’ I loved your open letter to Meghan, like you I have so many books about grief. After reading that I feel less alone in this grief process than I did before. Gratitude for you and your wonderful site, Karenne<3

  2. I wanted to follow up and let you know I purchased the book. I only read to page 11 and I found that I couldn’t stop crying. But…they were good tears….cleansing tears…and I found a release I haven’t found in almost three years. I will pick up the book again after I have recovered from the first 11 pages…it is an incredible book…and I find that I trust you and your site even more for giving this book such an incredible review. I truly, truly…cannot thank you enough.
    Catherine

    • Oh Catherine, I hate to say I am glad something made you cry, but I am glad it made you cry in a good way! The book is such an emotional read, but I couldn’t agree more that it can be cleansing to have a good cry. Will be interested to hear what you think as you read more.

  3. Dear Litsa,
    Thank you for this wonderful open letter…I lost my mom three years ago on April 30th, at 1:14pm…and it still seems like yesterday. I have tried to pretend I am okay, although I am quite sure I am not. I own a company called unbrokenheart, and daily I mend broken hearts and send messages of comfort and strength….all while knowing it is my own heart that is broken and feels as though it will never mend. It is ironic. My mom was my best friend and my mother…and I will never get over her not being here…but every once in a while I find something that I am sure she meant for me to find…and that is you and your site and your blog today…I will buy the book and read it…because I have learned to trust you from reading your honesty and compassion and reasoning skills….I think I am rambling…but most of all…I wanted to say thank you.

  4. Thank you for this blog and your recommendations. I have to say that I feel like we are grief friends, but you don’t even know it. My husband died on Christmas Eve, and I recently came across your website and have read the majority of your blog posts already. There is something about your style of sharing that resonates with me and makes me feel connected and understood. And truly I have done a lot of reading and browsing with very few finds that accomplish that. Maybe it’s the “balance of reason, emotion, crazy, funny, and existential crisis” that seems to work. I don’t know. But I wanted to say thank you for helping me feel a little less crazy in the midst of this grief maze.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Ruth. I am so sorry for the loss of your husband, but glad you have found some comfort in this site.

    • Ruth, thank you so much — we always say our site isn’t for everyone, but we like to believe there are people out there that our brand of odd works for 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to comment! When you write a blog you just put your posts out there and hope maybe someone connects with them. On the days we struggle to find the motivation to keep typing, it helps to know we have grief friends we don’t even know!

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