When her mother died, Slate.com’s Meghan O’Rourke heard from plenty of friends who tried to say the right thing. But only by wandering outdoors alone did she find the solace she needed.
I manage, at times, to look like a normal person, but I am not. Since my mother died, at 55, this past Christmas Day, I have been in grief. I walk down the street, brush my hair, answer my phone. But I don’t feel normal.
I am not surprised to find that it is a lonely life: After all, the person who brought me into the world is gone. There’s more, though. I feel that not just I, but the world around me, is deeply unprepared to deal with grief. Nearly every day during the early weeks, I received e-mails from people who wrote: “I hope you’re doing well.” It’s a kind sentiment, and yet sometimes it angered me. I am not okay. Nor do I find much relief in the well-meant refrain that at least my mother, who died of metastatic colorectal cancer, is “no longer suffering.” Mainly, I feel one thing: My mother is dead, and I want her back. I really want her back—sometimes so intensely that I don’t even want to heal. At least, not yet.
Grief is common, as Hamlet’s mother told him. We know it exists in our midst. But I am suddenly aware of how difficult it is for us to confront it. And to the degree that we do want to confront it, we do so in the form of self-help: We want to achieve an emotional recovery. Yet as we’ve come to frame grief as a psychological process, we’ve also made it more private. Many Americans don’t mourn in public anymore—we don’t wear black, we don’t beat our chests and wail. We don’t have the rituals of public mourning around which the individual experience of grief was once constellated.
I am the indoctrinated child of two lapsed Irish Catholics. Which is to say: I am not religious. And until my mother grew ill, I might not have described myself as deeply spiritual. I used to find it infuriating when people offered up the—to me—empty consolation that whatever happened, she “will always be there with you.”
But when my mother died, I found that I did not believe that she was gone. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room of my parents’ house, attended to by my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She took one slow, rattling breath; then, 30 seconds later, another; then she opened her eyes and looked at us, and took a last. As she exhaled, her face settled into repose. Her body grew utterly still, and yet she seemed present. I felt she had simply been transferred into another substance; what substance, where it might be located, I wasn’t quite sure.
That afternoon, I went outside onto my parents’ porch without putting my coat on. The limp winter sun sparkled off the frozen snow on the lawn. “Please take good care of my mother,” I said to the air. I addressed the fir tree she loved and the wind moving in it. “Please keep her safe for me.”
This is what a friend of mine—let’s call her Rose—calls “finding a metaphor.” We stayed up late one night in January, drinking lemon-ginger tea and talking about the difficulty of grieving. Her father had died several years ago, and it was easy to speak with her: She was in what more than one acquaintance who’s lost a parent has now referred to as “the club.” It’s not a club any of us wished to join, but I, for one, am glad it exists. It makes mourning less lonely. I told Rose how I envied my Jewish friends the reassuring ritual of saying kaddish. She talked about the hodgepodge of traditions she had embraced in the midst of her grief. And then she asked me, “Have you found a metaphor?”
“Have you found your metaphor for where your mother is?”
I knew immediately what Rose meant. I had. It was the sky—the wind. The cynic in me cringes on rereading this. But, in fact, it’s how I feel.
Every now and then, I see a tree shift in the wind and its bend has, to my eye, a distinctly maternal cast. For me, my metaphor is—as all good metaphors ought to be—a persuasive transformation. In these moments, I do not say to myself that my mother is like the wind; I think she is the wind. I feel her.
The other night, I was talking to my father on the phone, remembering my mother, when he happened to mention a “loss of confidence” that “we” (that is, our family) had all experienced. I asked him what he meant. I had been noticing that I have felt shy and insecure ever since my mother died, but I had assumed my insecurity was particular to me; I’ve always been a nervous person. But here was my father talking about something he saw all of us suffering from. He explained. “Your mother is not there,” he said. “And we are dealing with her absence. It makes us feel, I think, a loss of confidence—a general loss, an uncertainty about what we can rely on.”
Perhaps that’s why I’ve gone to the desert twice since my mother died. Not only does the physical desert reflect back at me my spiritual desert, it doesn’t have a lot of people in it—allowing me to enjoy solitude without feeling cut off, as I would if I were hunkered down in my apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. In January, three weeks after my mom’s death, I flew to L.A. and then drove to the Mojave Desert, where I spent a few days wandering around Joshua Tree National Park. Being alone under the warm blue sky made me feel closer to my mother. I felt I could detect her in the haze at the horizons. I offered a little prayer up to her, and, for the first time since she died, I talked out loud to her. I was walking along past the cactuses, when I looked out into the rocky distance. “Hello mother,” I whispered. “I miss you so much.” Then I started crying, and, ridiculously, apologized. “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel bad. I know you had to leave.” Even now, whenever I talk to my mother—I do it every few weeks, and always when I’m outdoors—I cry and then apologize because I don’t want her to feel guilt or sorrow that she can’t be here with me as she used to be. A part of me believes this concern is foolish. But it is intrinsic to the magical thinking at the heart of the ritual. I am powerless over it.
Just last month, I went to Marfa, Texas, a town in the Chinati Desert near Mexico. One afternoon, I drove south through the desert to an old ghost town, where I sat in the fresh spring sun. Perhaps because it is almost spring in New York, the warmth of the air registered as the augur of a new stage of mourning. It was as if I had been coaxed out of a dark room after a long illness. I watched a band play songs to a haphazard group of people who, for one reason or another, had been drawn down to this borderland and its arid emptiness. Listening to the band sing about loss and love, I felt sad and wrung out, but this, too, was good, like the sun on my skin. A vital nutrient that had seeped away during the winter was being replenished.
Loss is so paradoxical: It is at once enormous and tiny. And this, too, I think, is why I am drawn to landscapes that juxtapose the minute and the splendor; the very contrast is expressive of what I felt. After the concert, I drove down along the Rio Grande, noting all the green that had sprouted up along the dry riverbed. Then I turned and went into Big Bend National Park—a majestic preserve. Here, as in Joshua Tree, you drive along roads and can see rolling, rocky desert for many, many miles. The sky is as open as can be. Having my sense of smallness reflected back at me made me feel more at home in a majesty outside of my comprehension. It also led me to wonder: How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it does matter, to me, and in this setting that felt natural. The sheer sublimity of the landscape created room for the magnitude of my grief, while at the same time it helped me feel like a part—a small part—of a much larger creation. It was inclusive.
Being in the vast spaces while mourning made me think about religion. On New Year’s Eve, I’d had dinner with a friend who had been through his share of ups and downs. I was telling him that I hadn’t felt my mother leave the world, and he asked me if I believed in God. I told him that I did not know. I mentioned that over the past year, I had prayed in several moments of need, and had always felt better—as if something were coming back at me. He was quiet and then said, “I don’t know if I believe in God. But I do believe in prayer.” If you are a secular agnostic in America today, chances are you subscribe to a psychological framework for seeing the world, a framework that places stress on individuality. I believe in the importance of individuality, but in the midst of grief I also find myself wanting connection—wanting to be reminded that the sadness I feel is not just mine but ours.
I also want to find a way not to resent my suffering (though I do). It is hard to know what that way is, outside of the ethical framework of religion. Last fall, I copied out a passage from an interview with author Marilynne Robinson in an issue of The Paris Review. She is one of my favorite novelists; she is also Christian. The interviewer recalled Robinson once observing that Americans tend to avoid contemplating “larger issues.” Here is what Robinson said in response:
The ancients are right: The dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.
To that, I can say: Amen. And it underscores why I have been drawn to the remote outdoors, to places largely untouched by telephone wires and TGI Fridays. I want to be reminded of how the numinous impinges on ordinary life.
From a series on grieving that Meghan O’Rourke is writing for Slate.com. ©2009 by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive LLC and Slate.