Meghan O'Rourke Photo by: Sarah Shatz

Meghan O'Rourke on Writing Through Grief


Meghan O'Rourke Photo by: Sarah Shatz

Well, once I started writing the pieces for Slate I was very aware that other people were going to read them, so I felt that there was an obligation to try to be communicative in a way that would also honor the strange impossibilities of communicating things like this. But then once I actually began writing the book and I wasn’t publishing the pieces on Slate anymore – and I think this is something any writer would say – it really became private again. Even though I knew it was going to be published, that knowledge seemed extremely theoretical.

The primary impulse was to get something down on the page, as if it would help me understand. I only really began to think about the question of readers after I had written a draft and started to go back over things that were repetitive or not clear. So there was kind of a layering process, but there’s a lot in it that came from a very private place. I think that’s important. I don’t think you can totally write about grief unless you are writing from a private place.

What I also loved about the Barthes book was that it captured the kind of fractured-ness of things, which [for me] was harder to preserve in the final book but was very much in the original draft. 

What was it like to go back and revise something so personal?

A little strange – I would say that was the hardest part. While I was writing the book people kept going ‘This must be so hard.” There was this really interesting underlying assumption that it was morbid or dark or hard for me to be doing it, whereas, for me, to be doing this was so great. And I know that must sound really weird because of what the subject is, but I was already in this place, I was already mourning my mother and thinking about her all the time, so it gave me a way to do that constructively. It didn’t feel bad to write this book, but having to revise it, when the first act of writing it down had been so, you know, necessary, intuitive and organic, going back over it again to revise certain themes, or a couple of scenes where I felt I hadn’t gone deeply enough into the emotions, that was harder because it was much more cerebral

Throughout the book, you also share and go back to the many texts that you read: poetry, Buddhist texts, clinical studies, C.S. Lewis – what made you gravitate towards the works that you did?

I was really just looking around for texts to help. I had always read as a way of understanding the world; it’s through reading that the world makes sense to me…But one thing that happens after loss, is people want to help you. And one way that they try is to say “There’s a book that helped me.” So a lot of the books were recommended to me.

With the clinical studies, it was really just Google. I literally went running to Google “grief” and started to read. And then I Googled “grief and clinical studies.” Even though I distrusted, in some senses, studying grief, I also was very curious to know what scientists said. Elizabeth Kubler Ross [who proposed the five stages of grief] was someone whose work I already knew. People kept mentioning the five stages to me, so I felt I should go back to that. As I say in the book, I really wasn’t experiencing the five stages in the way you’re supposed to and I wondered whether that was normal.

And then with Hamlet, I remember a guy friend was talking about it and I just said “Oh, Hamlet, I really want to re-read that.” So there was something kind of bumbling and random about it. At one point I did think to myself, I need to study grief because I’m writing a book about it.’But I found that when I tried to read specific things and put them into the book, it didn’t really work; it felt off. I realized that if this was going to be the book I wanted it to be, it had to be a really organic record of my grieving. I had to forget that I was writing a book and I had to just transmit the experience I was actually having, what I was actually interested in, not what I thought I should be reading.

You also have a lot to say about the marginalization of death and loss in our culture and the lack of language and rituals to express them.  Why do you think this has happened?

I feel honestly that it is very complicated, so I don’t want to over simplify that or opine, but there are all sorts of sociological reasons. In the 20th century our world, our lives, really changed...While death is a constant, our attitudes and our thoughts about it are not, naturally. As various critics and scholars have said, death kind of became silent for a period in England and America, especially because we just didn’t see it around us that much: People began to die in hospital. Instead of having the big Irish wake in your own home, you have it in a funeral parlor. There are all these ways that it gets distanced. Once you lose that language of shared community ritual, you have to talk about your loss with words rather than having something you can do together with your friends and family that observes the loss.
My family is Irish Catholic, but I wasn’t raised Irish Catholic and we’re not surrounded by our family.  The people I work with and all my friends, they don’t’ necessarily have the rituals I have, and that creates a kind of difficulty. There’s no shared language, no idea that we should say X or Y, or do X or Y together. I think that memoirs like this really come out of people wanting to find a public space to talk about loss, and in some ways I feel this book is less of a traditional memoir in the “It happened to me” sense and more of a “This happens to all of us and here is my particular record of it.”
What you say about language is interesting. Even our language for sympathy places so much emphasis on the positive, on progress:  “I hope you are doing well;” “I hope you’re feeling better,” for example.  That isn’t always what someone needs to hear. 


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