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Mourning Mom: Meghan O'Rourke Discusses Caring for her Sick Mother and Surviving her Death

Lorraine Duffy Merkl
April 21, 2011

If, like me, your mother is still alive, you read The Long Goodbye then ran, not walked, to see the woman who gave birth to you.  Even though you find her ironing or watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," you express desperately your love for her, as though the respirator plug is about to be pulled.  She in turn looks confused and wants to know if you've "finally lost it."

Meghan O'Rourke's memoir about caring for her 55-year-old cancer-stricken mother, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke and ultimately mourning her death is not easy to read but hard to put down.

This moving and touching account also reads like a "What to Expect When You're Expecting" for the bereaved, full of well-researched facts she found to help her make sense of her new existence as a motherless daughter.? "I was actively searching for those things and figured other people must be too," the 35-year old O'Rourke says.

O'Rourke sat down with Care.com to talk about putting into words a loss for which there are none.

Although cathartic to write, now that you're out promoting, is it hard to keep reliving the experience?

It's not reliving, but it is a complicated thing to talk about this period with strangers.  I miss my mother every day.  Sometimes it's really hard.  [Promoting] has had me dreaming of my mother every night wondering what she'd think about this.  I often have little conversations with her and she says, "Oh Meg, really did you have to say that?"

Whatdo you think your mother would think of the book?

My dad said he thought she'd be proud and I think to the degree that the book might help somebody else, she'd be happy.  She was a teacher and fully invested in helping other people.

What was the reaction of your brothers and father to the book?

They were nervous about reading it, but have been positive.  My father and brothers like how I captured her.  They like that [the book] exists in the world.

Did you equate ending your grieving with forgetting her?

There were moments when something [funny] would happen and I'd laugh then catch myself and think, "Oh no, I'm forgetting her."  I knew what she would want for me, which was to be happy.  I just wasn't ready to be. I really loved her. It seemed natural to me that it would take time to adjust to the world without her and I wanted to honor that. [Mourning] felt necessary in a time when I felt estranged from my own sense of security.

My father said it well: First you just feel the presence of absence, then you feel the absence of presence.

How are you doing now without your mother?

It's been two and a half years. I'm doing well.

After my mom died I'd be on the subway and wonder, "How many people sitting in this car are going through this right now?" I wished there was a way to be more connected to other mourners... I spent a lot of time away after my mom died. It was hard to be here [in Brooklyn.] There are memories on every corner.

Now, I'm out in the world with my friends and I'm doing all the things that my mom isn't able to do...I miss my mom now, but it's in a different way. People are naturally resilient. I see the strength of that resilience.

Is there anything you'd do differently in terms of how you dealt with the aftermath of her death?

I look back and say, "Boy Meghan, you really made things harder for yourself."  A week after my mom died, I felt that I should be working or I should be doing things that I usually do.  I just wasn't up to it...I don't want to start second-guessing. I could go down that road, but one thing I learned is that I had to be kind to myself.  I did what I did.  Nothing is to be gained by wishing for a different reality.  In the way that she died, my mother taught me that at some point you have to let go of wanting to control things - control is an illusion.

How has your mother's death changed you?

It's made me softer.  I also now see that things are survivable.

Is it hard for you to listen to people talk about their mothers in conversation?

Sometimes it's just a twinge of envy like, "I wish I had that."  A friend of mine who has a new baby was saying, "I don't think I could do this without my mom," then she remembered and said, "Oh I'm so sorry I didn't mean to say that."  I'm glad she has her mom.  Other people have moms.  That's just the reality.

Has your experience with doctors and hospitals not being the Marcus Welby/Florence Nightingales we dream they are, but more clinicians, affected your view of the healthcare industry?

What [the healthcare industry] needs to think about is what it means to care for the terminally ill, beyond administering a morphine drip.

It felt to me that the system was messed up.  So many rules and regulations in hospitals, like how many people can be in the room of the dying person.  Someone broke the rule for us so we could all be together.

I actually empathized with a lot of the doctors and nurses, who were kind and expert, because it seemed like a hard job.

Speaking of hard jobs, what about your role as caretaker?

I helped her find her oncologist and other doctors, and I went with her to the hospital for appointments.  We got closer, hugging a lot more, and lying in bed together.  In the final months, we had at-home hospice, so I did a lot of the medicating and soothing.  It was intense.

As well as "The Long Goodbye," you've previously published a collection of poetry called "Halflife."  What's next?

Another book of poems, called "Once."  Although it covers different topics, a lot of the poems are about my mom.

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