The Long Goodbye

Finding a Metaphor for Your Loss
A study of bereavement.
Feb. 24 2009 7:11 AM

The Long Goodbye

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

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 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.

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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." I was visiting her a few weeks ago in California; we stayed up late, drinking lemon-ginger tea and talking about the difficulty of grieving, its odd jags of ecstasy and pain. Her father 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 hodge-podge of traditions she had embraced in the midst of her grief. And then she asked me, "Have you found a metaphor?"

"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.) When I got home to Brooklyn, I asked one of my mother's friends whether she had a metaphor for where my mother was. She unhesitatingly answered: "The water. The ocean."

The idea that my mother might be somewhere rather than nowhere is one that's hard for the skeptical empiricist in me to swallow. When my grandfather died last September, he seemed to me merely—gone. On a safari in South Africa a few weeks later, I saw two female lions kill a zebra. The zebra struggled for three or four long minutes; as soon as he stopped, his body seemed to be only flesh. (When I got home the next week, I found out that my mother had learned that same day that her cancer had returned. It spooked me.)

But I never felt my mother leave the world.

At times I simply feel she's just on a long trip—and am jolted to realize it's one she's not coming back from. I'm reminded of an untitled poem I love by Franz Wright, a contemporary American poet, which has new meaning. It reads, in full:

I basked in you;
I loved you, helplessly, with a boundless tongue-tied love.
And death doesn't prevent me from loving you.
Besides,
in my opinion you aren't dead.
(I know dead people, and you are not dead.)

Sometimes I recite this to myself as I walk around.

At lunch yesterday, as velvety snow coated the narrow Brooklyn street, I attempted to talk about this haunted feeling with a friend whose son died a few years ago. She told me that she, too, feels that her son is with her. They have conversations. She's an intellectually exacting person, and she told me that she had sometimes wondered about how to conceptualize her—well, let's call it a persistent intuition. A psychiatrist reframed it for her: He reminded her that the sensation isn't merely an empty notion. The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.

That's a kind of comfort. But I confess I felt a sudden resistance of the therapist's view. The truth is, I need to experience my mother's presence in the world around me and not just inmy head. 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: there, and there. One sad day, I actually sat up in shock when I felt my mother come shake me out of a pervasive fearfulness that was making it hard for me to read or get on subways. Whether it was the ghostly flicker of my synapses, or an actual ghostly flicker of her spirit, I don't know. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping it was the latter.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.