Meghan O'Rourke on Writing Through Grief


Yeah, it’s funny. I think one reason we’re silent about grief is that we imagine it to be the worst possible thing in the world. When we haven’t experienced it, we’re very fearful of it. I was very fearful, really scared, to think about what it would be like when my mother died. And it was awful, it was completely awful, but it also was survivable. We know that people in general are very resilient, so there’s a kind of paradox. On the one hand, it was really terrible, but, on the other hand, I survived, my family survived, we have joy in our lives, we have many things we love. I think that the language that surrounds grief comes from the fearfulness. People are scared to let mourners just express and experience their emotions. 

Part of what I wanted to do with the book is show that it is really painful, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying, and that if we look at it more squarely in the face, maybe we’ll find a better language for sympathy. My friends really wanted me to feel better, so that’s why they would say “you’re going to feel better soon.” But in the moment, and I think many bereaved people will understand this, I felt like “I don’t’ want to move right to feeling better. My mother died and I really care about her and I want to spend time honoring that loss rather than being told I’m going to feel better.”

Do you think anything can be done to make talking about death easier? Writing books like yours is a good start.

Yes, it is very much my hope that this book will be helpful on some level, for mourners – for everybody, for my friends who didn’t know how to talk to me about what I was going through...Starting a national conversation about grief is very important, especially at a time of war. We need to be a little more open to the idea of grief. What I’m really interested in is the idea of letting people grieve, letting them have their grief and understanding that that’s OK. I think that if we can come to that place by talking about it openly, that would make a real difference.

You are also a poet – your previous book, Halflife, was a collection of poems. Why did you choose to move from poetry to prose for this?

That’s a great question. I just didn’t know how to write about it in poetry. It seemed to me that it was necessarily kind of meditative. The things I was thinking about were things I had to think about in prose because they had to do with interactions with other people; they had, in a way, to do with narrative and a failure of narrative. Sometimes you’re trying to create a narrative for something and you just can’t.    

The kind of poetry I write and I’m drawn to is not narrative, but lyric: about a lyric moment, or capturing an evasive feeling or an image. I felt that this was about time in a much different way. I tried to write poems about my mom’s death after she died and I really couldn’t at first, because there is something so open about poetry. I just kept losing the thread. It was too scary, too emotional, like going into a well. Whereas with prose, I had the through line of the sentence, which became a tightrope that I could hold on to on the path.

Were there any Irish books, authors, or poets you gravitated towards?

Oh, God yes. Yeats, I read a lot of Yeats. On the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death we read a Yeats poem, “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I read some Seamus Heaney poems about his dad, [Death of a Naturalist]. I re-read James Joyce’s "The Dead."

That image of snow blanketing the world, that to me felt like a beautiful image of what it felt like to be grieving: a kind of stillness everywhere and a kind of transformation.