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Making Meaning From Loss

A conversation with memorist Maryanne O'Hara.

Key points

  • Grief will never go away, but it will coexist with joy and appreciation for what one still has.
  • Suffering can be an opportunity for personal transformation.
  • Every human being looks for answers about life's big questions in the natural world and through relationships.
  • Writing and reflecting about loss can in itself be healing.
Michael Bravaro
Maryanne O'Hara
Source: Michael Bravaro

This post is Part 1 in a series.

Maryanne O’Hara wrote and published short stories before researching and writing Cascade, a novel that explores“what lasts." Shortly after its publication, her daughter Caitlin’s lifelong health condition worsened, requiring the family to uproot from Boston to Pittsburgh for more than two years to wait for a lung transplant. Little Matches: A Memoir of Grief and Light is Maryanne’s intimate recounting of Caitlin’s journey and her own, weaving a rich narrative of memories with text messages, emails, journal entries, and even drawings. By sharing how Maryanne navigates her existence during and after an adulthood dedicated to Caitlin’s care, the book chronicles one mother’s reckoning with what comes next when the worst finally happens and you’re left with the fact of yourself, still existing in a world that must make sense if you’re to continue living in it.

When their only child was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) at the age of 2, Maryanne and her husband were told that Caitlin could live a long life or die in a matter of months. Thirty-one years later, following an excruciating, two-year wait on the transplant list and a last-minute race to locate a pair of healthy lungs, a story that attracted nationwide attention, Caitlin lost her battle with this pernicious disease.

The sudden spiral of devastating events left Maryanne in an existential crisis, searching to find answers to life’s eternal questions: Now what am I for? Why are we here? During her final years, Caitlin had become a source of wisdom and comfort for her mother, the partner with whom she shared deep spiritual and intellectual quests. After Caitlin’s passing, she began to notice signs—persistent synchronicities that seemed to suggest Caitlin’s enduring presence. She consulted medical research and mediums in her quest to find answers to the question, “Does consciousness survive death?”

Lynne: I’d like to begin by offering my condolences for the loss of your daughter. It was a brave and generous act to write this memoir. I know readers will appreciate how thoughtfully you captured your grief journey. I’m also certain they’ll be grateful to have had the opportunity to benefit from Caitlin’s wisdom. What prompted you to write about such a personal, and sometimes painful, experience?

Maryanne: Thank you so much. Well, the only kind of writing I could do after Caitlin passed was to write on the blog I’d kept during her transplant wait. The posts were a way to grieve out loud, in a way that felt connected to other people and to Caitlin herself. I shared her writings, I wrote anecdotal stories that tried to make sense of life and death. And people responded. I began to receive what I called the “you don’t know me” letters. Letters that spoke to how psychologically helpful readers found my honest, unsentimental reflections on suffering and loss and the beauty of life. Eventually I decided that if writing about Caitlin was going to help people, I wanted to do it. I wanted people to know, as BJ Miller puts it, that “suffering can be an opportunity for transformation.”

Lynne: This beautiful memoir is divided into three parts: In Between, Life, and Afterlife. Why did you make the choice to introduce the reader to your story and Caitlin’s story in this way?

Maryanne: I wanted to write from smack inside the worst of it. I wanted a record. I wanted anyone reading it to understand how it was, and if they were going through something similar, to feel validated, to be able to say, Yes, this is how it is! And to know they weren’t alone. I was also conscious of the tendency of human memory to beatify a person in the years after death. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to write our story as it really was. And once I was writing, in real time I was looking for answers to the big questions. Regardless of one’s beliefs, I wanted the last section of the book to inspire and give readers hope. Because life is pretty wonderful and darkness seeks light, grief seeks relief. My grief will never go away, but it will coexist with joy and appreciation for what I had and still have. As Caitlin wrote, in her last post, “I want to reassure you I don’t take myself too seriously. I do take life seriously though, I’ll be honest ... because it’s a seriously wild business.”

B. J. Miller, hospice and palliative care physician, author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End and the 2015 TED Talk, "What Really Matters at the End of Life” calls Little Matches “love in ink … a book about life, including death.”

In tomorrow’s post, Maryanne and I will continue our conversation, talking about signs, and the hope of soulful connections that transcend the boundary between life and death.

To learn more about Maryanne O’Hara’s work, visit her website at maryanneohara.com and her blog at 9LivesNotes.com.

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