by Jennifer Haupt, PsychologyToday.com
Interview with Megan O’Rourke, a grieving daughter who turned her journal into a memoir and tribute to her mom.
Meghan O’Rourke’s honest and beautifully written memoir began as a journal she kept after her mother’s death. In the process, she not came to terms not only with her own grief but was also compelled to learn more about the grieving process. Here’s more from Meghan:
Jennifer Haupt: Had you been journaling before your mother’s death? And why did you start journaling about the mourning process?
Megan O’Rourke: I found that I was writing down little scraps of things even while my mother was still alive. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in May 2006, about two and a half years before she died-on Christmas Day, 2008.
When my mother was sick, I found myself needing to put down in my journals all sorts of things-to try to understand them, and, I think, to try to remember them. Those who have gone through a similar experience may know what I mean when I say I was desperate to hold on, to slow things down, to feel some bit of control. Those months were very chaotic. I often felt helpless, powerless to alter the trajectory we were on. And so when we went to a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor was unkind, I could write it all down and it seemed-however falsely, or illusory-to give me some understanding or control.
It was also, obviously, a way of remembering her, of capturing what was passing so fast: Her funny gestures, her hopefulness, her courage in dealing with the illness, the way she would say “I love you to death” whenever she said “Goodnight.” (The old phrase suddenly broke my heart.) I wanted to slow down time, and writing helped me feel that I was doing so. I was slowing down my thoughts, and making sure I’d remember my mom.
JH: When you lost your mother, did you feel as if you were losing a piece of yourself? If so, how did you recover that piece?
MO: Yeah, I did feel I was losing a piece of myself. Actually, I felt really unsure of my entire place of the world. The person who loved me most in the world was gone. I had to learn how to survive without her. I could almost feel the hole in the world where she had been. It seemed like the world was very precarious and hostile without her in it. I felt insecure and shy, almost like a teenager all over again.
I don’t think I feel I’ve “recovered” that piece. Instead, I keep thinking about a tree growing around an obstacle. After she died, I was still living and growing, but I was forever changed by her death; my life had a new, different path.
As for “recovering,” it’s true that time helps. (Clichés sometimes have wisdom behind them.) Looking back, I’d say that the best thing I did for myself was trying to take care of myself on a simple level – by getting enough rest, not pushing myself too hard, trying to exercise and eat well. I didn’t do any of that consistently, but when I did it helped. Learning to let my friends express their love and support helped also; I realized that they did feel sorrow for me but couldn’t express it, sometimes, or were scared to.
JH: What was most surprising to you about the process of grieving over your mother’s death?
MO: I wasn’t prepared for the fact that grief is so unpredictable. It wasn’t just sadness, and it wasn’t linear. Somehow I’d thought that the first days would be the worst and then it would get steadily better – like getting over the flu. That’s not how it was. I’d have a good week, and then one day, a wave of grief would crash over me, threatening me, subsuming me. It was very hard to explain this to friends who hadn’t been through a loss, or to colleagues.