The Exchange: Why Americans Can’t Cope With Trauma

Writers Meghan O'Rourke and Hanya Yanagihara explore death and grief in the Facebook age.


After her mother died, poet and writer Meghan O’Rourke found that grief was an isolating force. The lack of public discussion and ritual surrounding death is recounted in her memoir, The Long Goodbye. 2015 Global Thinker Hanya Yanagihara also explores the messiness of sorrow in her acclaimed novel, A Little Life. Her protagonist is a man haunted relentlessly by childhood abuse but supported by a non-traditional family. O’Rourke and Yanagihara met recently to discuss the limitations Western cultures place on suffering and intimacy, including the sympathy offered to strangers afflicted by trauma.

Meghan O’Rourke: I think many people feel a version of what I’ve felt, which is that they don’t know how to grieve in American culture. But I do think the conversation has changed, and I think the internet has played a role. It’s made public the privatization of grief. You can post on Facebook that someone has died, and people post on the walls of the deceased. Rather than finding that shallow, I think it’s helped make mourning a bit public again. It’s created a town square, as it were.

Hanya Yanagihara: When you think of the two great modern books about birth and death, by Dr. [Benjamin] Spock and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there have been many counternarratives to Dr. Spock and how you should raise a child. But there have been very few comparative books about how you should mourn. That conversation has not advanced in a studied, concentrated way. It has on the internet, you’re right. And there have been some wonderful memoirs and narratives, but there haven’t really been great studies that are almost manuals for grieving.

MO: Could one succeed in doing that? A lot of The Long Goodbye was written anti-Kübler-Ross because I hold her to blame. She gave us this idea of the five stages of grief. It made it sound very tidy. With trauma, you’re supposed to get through it. Grieving, you’re supposed to get to this stage of acceptance. But it doesn’t work that way.

HY: We prefer to think of things on some sort of continuum, and that they always end in a result. One of the things I did want to do in my book was talk about this idea that for people who have experienced trauma, there is no such thing as past tense. It’s always encroaching upon the present. Yet we tend to be fairly unsympathetic toward those who we feel can’t quite wrestle or lasso their grief to the ground. We get very impatient with people who we feel are dwelling in it or lingering in it.

MO: Why are we so impatient with the suffering of others? What is it that makes it so hard to recognize and make space for the trauma of others?

HY: I think it’s partly because the language of pain and of illness is so limited. It’s rudimentary, and it’s private. When you are in pain or are ill, your world becomes much smaller, and much more insular, and it makes you depend upon those people with whom you created this language. When you try to communicate that to an outside world, you come across as self-absorbed or as repetitive or as boring or as narcissistic.

MO: I’m paraphrasing, but Virginia Woolf says English has so many words for the love of Romeo for Juliet, but try to describe pain and you run out. The scholar Elaine Scarry also writes about this beautifully and has a great quote about pain being the most real thing to you and the most unreal thing to another. It also strikes me that, in America—and this is going to sound really grandiose—suffering places a burden on the rest of us. It’s the burden of care, which we do not value.

HY: You’ve written that in America, we tend to think of dying as losing and being alive as winning, which I agree with. When we look at the language around death—“he lost his battle to cancer”—it’s sports terms. It’s terms that we use about competition that we’re applying to life and to death when really, of course, death is not losing and being alive is not winning.

* * *

MO: I think the heartbreak that I write about in The Long Goodbye was not just the heartbreak of my mother dying, but it was the heartbreak of a relatively privileged person, who had grown up in relative comfort and with many good things happening to her, confronting absolute limitation—the absolute limitations of being alive, which are also the source of a lot of the wonder of being alive. It’s the fact that you cannot save other people. You can’t use your mind to solve all problems. We are really raised to feel this, I think, in certain echelons of American culture. To watch someone’s body fail is a very profound thing. It forces you to acknowledge you cannot save anybody.

HY: I love that phrase, “The limitations of being alive”—which I would precede with, “The wonderful.” “The wonderful limitations of being alive.” Although it’s hard to recognize them, at times. One of the things that I wanted to explore in my book is the idea that, as you say, no one person can save another person. But that’s the beauty and the pain of love itself—when so much in life is results-oriented, when we expect a hard finish line on so many relationships we have in life, and we do so many things because we expect something from it. The love for a friend, or for a parent, or a child, or for anybody is one of the things that makes us human because there is no result from it. Except for the pleasure, and the wonder, and the horror, sometimes, of loving someone. That’s it.

* * *

MO: In my book, I wanted to claim the mother-daughter relationship as primary, in some way. I think in my life I hadn’t understood that. My mother’s death was a realization for me that certain things had prevented me from seeing things about the nature of our relationship. In that sense, it was a romance in that it was the loss. So much of romance and love is that inability to get to the other, the distance. So when my mother died, she was no longer endlessly available. Mothers are available, or are supposed to be in pop culture, and she kind of was. It was only after her death that the romance became clear to me.

HY: In A Little Life, there are two, possibly three, romances. I consciously wanted to divorce this idea of a romantic relationship from, say, a sexual relationship. Sometimes the two are intertwined, but sometimes they’re not. A romance to me is, by its definition, a quixotic relationship. It’s something that is probably illogical, and probably uneven, and probably, if we can use the sports term again, a losing battle. Someone is bound to lose and does it anyway. I wanted to make these pairings, these couplings, in the book that were about two people who were together for unexpected and often unlikely reasons and were throwing themselves at each other again, and again, and again. And they were with each other because of this mutual and assumed expectation of delight, in a sense. Many of us do have that with people who are friends or who are parents. Yet the word “romance” never attaches itself to those relationships.

MO: I also tried to write through the expectations one might have about marriage, who our romances end up being with, what a support system is. And one thing I really felt in your book is the modernity of the relationships and the interplay of the fact that you have an ensemble cast—you are allowed to show many kinds of relationships, from the more traditional to the less.

HY: I do think that the book might suggest that the idea of a blood family is, if not irrelevant, then certainly too narrow for our world. It, I hope, doesn’t argue against the legislated relationship, which I still think does have a role in our society. I’m very suspicious of them, but there is something beautiful about an announcement that one can make to the state and to one’s society that you have formed a union with someone, whether it’s a spouse, or a parent, or an adopted child. There is something significant and weighty about that.

* * *

MO: Listening to Obama’s speech to the United Nations in September and the letter he read from the little boy, I was thinking about something he said about the way that children have this kind of openness and responsiveness. I don’t know how to address the scale of trauma and grief of the Syrian refugee child but, certainly, I can look at myself and think: We also have to accept that burden. We do as a society, as a nation. Does it mean taking in many more refugees? Is it setting up support systems? I feel like, in one way, the domestic election was a lot about what grief of others we accept, what suffering of others we allow our minds to touch on, what we build walls around and then push out.

HY: With the Syrian refugee crisis, I’m deeply concerned about the ethical, human response—making sense of not only the scale of deaths, but the fact that we’re living in a point in history in which we see those deaths. We’ve become more and more immune to it even as the horrors get worse. I also wonder: What does it mean for the health of the world at large? After wars, you have a generation of people who are growing up deeply psychologically damaged. It doesn’t just affect their lives, it affects their societies, and it affects the world. How will we make accommodations for an entire generation of children who are growing up so profoundly traumatized and so profoundly sick? That’s a chilling question to ask because it will eventually become apparent. The children who are damaged today are going to become adults who are damaged. Adults who are damaged do terrible things. It’s not just for a human reason that something has to be done, but for a greater global reason.

This conversation has been condensed for publication. Listen to the discussion here or by subscribing to FP’s Global Thinkers podcast on iTunes. A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of FP magazine.

Credits: Sarah Shatz (O’Rourke); Jenny Westerhoff (Yanagihara)