To face death without the architecture of belief may be devastating, but when endured by gifted writers, it results in a potent genre: the memoir of loss, such as Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story. Literature like this may be one of our best hopes for a secular reckoning with grief.
Add to the canon the talented young writer Meghan O'Rourke, who was 32 when her 55-year-old mother died of cancer in 2008. The Long Goodbye chronicles her caretaking and sorrow.
Her mother died at home, wasted by illness, 2 ½ years after she'd been diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer. There was no cause, other than her terrible luck. O'Rourke's parents, both educators, had moved to Connecticut after decades in New York City, where O'Rourke herself lived and worked as an editor at Slate.
After the diagnosis, O'Rourke commuted regularly to spend time with, then help, her mother. During the 30 months of her mother's illness and the year that followed, O'Rourke married, had her own health scare, divorced, quit her job, rekindled a romance with her high school boyfriend. Those events, however, never take center stage.
Instead, the focus remains on her mother and on O'Rourke's wrestling with grief. The effect of her circuitous storytelling is that her mother remains present even though we know she is dead: She's as present for the reader as she must be for the children and husband who lost her.
O'Rourke finds that in 21st century America, grief has become "the last taboo." "I kept thinking, 'I just want somewhere to put my grief,' " she writes. "I was imagining a vessel for it. . . . I had the sense that if I could chant, or rend my clothes, or tear my hair, I could, in effect, create that vessel in the world." She has succeeded, for this book becomes that vessel. It's a secular ceremony, one that memorializes the mother's best aspects, her daughter's effort to be present throughout her decline, and the terrible, common burden of being the person who continues to live.