Paris Review – Meghan O’Rourke on ‘The Long Goodbye’, Thessaly La Force
Stage theory took hold in the late sixties and early seventies. That was a time when there was even more silence surrounding death and dying—patients in hospitals often wouldn’t be told they were dying. I think the idea took hold because it gave shape to this experience that is so strange and destabilizing. I don’t want to make all grief sound the same, but there is an intense grief that can shake your sense of identity, and when you are in the depths of it you don’t know when it is ever going to end. Stage theory made it teleological, made it end-oriented.
But I think this is fiction. Grief is characterized much more by waves of feeling that lessen and reoccur, it’s less like stages and more like different states of feeling.
And why is stage theory not accurate? Kübler-Ross, to her credit, never meant to use the stages to describe the bereaved. She didn’t study grief in a very systematic way; she talked to people in hospitals. When psychiatrists began to study grief more empirically, they found that Kübler-Ross had indeed named many of the emotions that people experience. But we don’t experience depression for three months and then anger for three months in tidy sequence. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, the first predominant emotion that people experience isn’t denial, which is Kübler-Ross’s first stage, but yearning or nostalgia. When I discovered this fact, that was the first moment when I thought, Oh I am not crazy; acute nostalgia is exactly what I am experiencing.
I thought it was really beautiful when you described those sharp moments where you miss you mother, as if you’re catching your breath. It sounded like being in love. I am so glad you said that. I think the book is not just about grief or sadness, but about love. It’s a family romance; it is a book about loving my mother, and mothers and daughters. When my mother first died I thought, But I love her, and I am not ready to heal because I love her and part of what I am feeling is love. In this one regard (if not in others) it’s similar to what you might feel after a breakup. You are still missing the person, and though everyone around you wants you to move on, you can’t do it right away. And nor should you—you have to go through a process of readjusting to the world.