A Review of Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye
May 25, 2018 § 7 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
I read Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss while I taught Hamlet and could not stop comparing these texts, which share a few striking similarities, including father loss, a fatherly spirit who converses with the living, and head-on interruptions of cultural silences imposed on the bereaved. The first rule broken, of course, is the ban on speaking openly about the existential crisis that ensues when one confronts mortality.
Most famously, the grave-digging scene in Hamlet forefronts the image of a skull (poor Yorick!), a famous Renaissance momento mori, to remind audiences that finite borders mark life as precious. It is because we will die that life calls us to attention.
In Starting with Goodbye, Romeo includes a chapter titled “Momento Mori” in which she describes the brutal act of cleaning out possessions in her late father’s den. Each object encountered thrusts Romeo back into the moments when an object illuminated her father’s love and care. A painful realization dawns when she finds a canceled check her father wrote to cover one of her horses. She recalls “having a sense” at the time the check was written “that no matter what terrible thing might happen or threaten to happen, it was okay, because my father would be able to fix it, smooth things over, make it right.”
Therein lies the rub. After her father’s death, Romeo’s once cherished parental safety net disappears, even if this safety net had grown tenuous and complicated by geographic and emotional distance, as well as Romeo’s responsibilities for her own family. Much of Starting with Goodbye compels me, but this rumination undid me. And I suspect other children who’ve lost parents will relate.
The aftermath, the life one must live without a parent to offer guidance or protection, stings more than the initial shock of death precisely because of its relentlessness. As Eula Biss has written, “The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that I have a few things in common with Romeo, including sharing an alma mater (Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), parent loss (although I was twenty-one when my mother died) and producing writing that is also invested in candid, public conversations about grief.
What I find most valuable about Starting with Goodbye is how this book shatters grief myths to expose bereavement experiences that often go unacknowledged within American life. For example, there’s the quiet relief a child might feel, and that Romeo confronts, when a parent dies after a long or deteriorating illness.
There’s the truth that our absent loved ones are ever-present. They are dead and never truly gone. A corpse might become a ghost, as in Hamlet, a memory, or a lingering and difficult-to-name presence who shows up to chat, as is Romeo’s experience.
Her narrator never defines these unexpected fatherly apparitions, nor does she label them as paranormal but simply notes, “We talk, my dead father and I.” And her chapter “What Happens in Vegas” contends with these unexpected father-daughter conversations, funeral ephemera, and the deaths of celebrities who remind Romeo of her father.
In turn, Romeo’s ruminations amplify the emotional complexities of early mourning, when there is no rulebook or how-to manual for how to get this right, despite American culture’s insistence on five tidy consecutive stages of grief.
At the chapter’s conclusion, Romeo remarks on the deaths of celebrity icons who remind her of her father, and whose losses trigger new experiences of grief. Her point? Grief is not a straight line with a fixed beginning or end. It’s more like a wave or a ripple, more like a surprise.
“As each one of these old men dies or fades from public life, I designate others to take their place, men slightly older than my father was at his death, older than he ever got to be,” she writes.
For me, these musings were most welcome and powerful. My mother resembled Mary Tyler Moore, and they both lived with type 1 diabetes. When the actress died last year, I felt, for a moment, like I’d lost my mother again. Romeo’s candor normalized my own reaction, and gave me a model for a grief experience where I’ve rarely found appropriate models.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published following my mother’s death—and Romeo references this book, which has become a seminal grief-text of our time, comparable to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in the twentieth century. But I find Starting with Goodbye more helpful because of Romeo’s wry wit, which offers a much needed cultural critique.
In her chapter “Leaving Las Vegas,” she examines then discards hollow platitudes that, at the level of language, illuminate a cultural tendency to erase or project positivity onto experiences of grief and loss. Platitudes appear in italics, followed with Romeo’s plain text critiques.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she writes. “There’s a lot you can do, but I can’t let you know. I can’t think straight, figure out whom or what to ask and risk a no.”
“You are in my thoughts and prayers,” she adds. “Great. Now, when I get home, talk to me, let me talk. Don’t be shocked.”
As I read these lines, I thought once more of ghosts—of grief as a kind of haunting where language fails to adequately capture or categorize experience. In Romeo’s story, ghosts are more symbolic, more speculative than literal. And yet, as in Hamlet, the possibility of a ghost speaks to a child’s longing. Even in adulthood, we need our parents.
Grief, from the old French grever, means “to burden.” And for children who lose their parents, grief can feel like a burden, like an intractable weight that changes in shape or size, and shifts unexpectedly. It was Carl Jung who popularized this notion when he wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”
However, I worry that “burden” has negative connotations that contribute to our cultural tendency to avoid and deny death. I prefer thinking about grief as a relationship like any relationship, a commitment borne out of love. For seventeen years, I have mourned my mother in direct proportion to my love for her. Grief keeps us connected. Death is not the end of a relationship, but a turning point, as evidenced by Romeo’s title: Starting with Goodbye.
Perhaps this is why I’ve already planned to give copies of her memoir to friends, family, and students beginning their own grief journeys.
In American culture, where talk of death is still taboo, we need more stories about the aftermath of loss, about what it means to live with candor in the face of grief. We need stories that speak with frankness about parental death. We need writers like Romeo to start a new conversation, to keep it going.
Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.