skip to main content

Small Mercies

Author Robin Romm talks about her memoir of her mother's death

The Mercy Papers, a memoir by Robin Romm about the last weeks of her mother's life, is a brutally honest account of what it means to lose someone you love to cancer. We talked with Romm about why she wrote the book.

Q: The Mercy Papers is incredibly forthright, particularly how furious you were about the death of your mother, Jackie. Its honesty is startling, given that death is often described in platitudes. Can you talk about that?

A. I started writing because I couldn't write fiction. Everything going on in my parents' house was so vivid and alarming, and I couldn't look away. One of the things I had felt was that no book really captured death as it really is: full of conflict and surprise and arguments and resistance. And I think the response to the book is really interesting. Some people are alarmed, and others are so grateful that the complexity of death is finally being confronted. Everybody [who was present during the last weeks of Jackie's life] was motivated by different things. It wasn't a harmonious gathering. People outside the house were motivated by wanting to do good. The hospice nurse was motivated by a particular agenda to speed to a painless end. My own agenda was to be with my mother as long as possible.

Q: You mention the hospice nurse, Barb. From her "bluish teeth and frizzy black hair styled like a hunting cap," you spare her little in the book. You wrote: She's building a boat to sail my mother out. She has no interest in my mother's life, the thoughts she had, the cases she won, her family. Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty. What was the problem with Barb?

A. Somebody asked me, "Was she really that bad?" I had no answer because I don't know. I've never had another hospice nurse in the house. One way of thinking about this is she was really good because her job was to help mom die, and she really had no job with me. That was her role. And I wanted [my mom] to live, and so we were opposed. One of the things that was really difficult was that the family is not going to have a unified view about what it means to die. And if a caregiver comes in with a different idea -- say the family doesn't believe in heaven and the caregiver tries to put that on the family -- it's not comforting, it's irritating.

Q: So what should people who are trying to help say or do?

A. I think silence is underrated. Being there with someone and just acknowledging this is the hardest thing, that it's a scary thing. I found those comments to be the most comforting: that nothing is going to make this OK. My mom's friend, a therapist, gave me a blanket and said, "You can wrap up in this, this is what I can do for you." I appreciated the humility of that gesture, of that attempt to find some comfort for me even a tiny bit. People need to be willing to acknowledge pain, rather than heal it.

Q: Had you and your mother discussed her death ahead of time?

A. My mom and I talked about her death pretty frankly in the year preceding. At that point, I was able to acknowledge she would die; when I was younger, I just couldn't understand it. My mom was really an honest person and could handle quite a bit of grief and understood my pain was going to be necessary. It wasn't something to be avoided. Some people, they think, "Oh my god, how selfish you didn't say you'd be fine." It was understood that honesty was going to be privileged. Some people can say or do that idealized right thing because they truly are OK with it, but I truly wasn't. And Mom understood that that was going to be my experience and she wasn't going to be able to change it. She wasn't going to need me to be OK with it, and I think that was a real gift.

back to top

Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2009