The year 2009 was a difficult one for me, marked by losses that were numerous and frequent. I was blindsided by the profound emptiness and heartache that came from these sudden voids in my life. It felt as though life had pulled the rug from under my feet. I wasn't coping well and I suppose I was looking for better ways to deal with things in 2010 when I picked up Joan Didion's book The Year Of Magical Thinking.
On Christmas Day of 2003, the only child of writers John and Joan Dunne (who writes under her maiden name Joan Didion), Quintana, was admitted to Beth Israel hospital in New York with pneumonia. By day's end, she was in ICU in septic shock. Five days later, having returned home from a visit to the hospital, John and Joan sat down to dinner. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Didion's beloved husband of nearly forty years slumped over and died of a massive heart attack.
A few days later, Didion made this note on her computer.
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.”
Life as she had known it had ended. These sudden changes and losses marked the beginning of what she describes as her year of magical thinking, a year in which she struggled with the conviction that she could have and should have done something to prevent John's death, a year in which grief came ... “in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." It was also a year in which Quintana's recovery became increasingly uncertain.
Didion describes it best herself. "On most surface levels I seemed rational..." "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. . . . Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." She relates that she had been trained since her childhood to look for answers in literature, "But I hadn't read anything that captured what I was going through, the immediacy and rawness of it." "I knew I wasn't thinking rationally. I was thinking as children do when they think they can change something that's already happened." Of this book, she writes "This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."
I'm not sure what I expected when I picked The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Did I think I would find the meaning in my losses? Perhaps I was looking for Grief For Dummies, an explanation of how to properly deal with the feelings, how to wrap them into a tidy little package like Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, to make of them a simple task to be completed. What I found was an amazing portrait of the losses and grief of another person, painted with unusual honesty and intimacy, her story of her journey into that “place none of us know until we reach it.” In the similarities of our stories, I found a measure of solace. In the differences, I recognized that we each deal with grief in our own ways and that it isn't over until it's over, if in fact grief ever completely ends. Whatever the case, it cannot be hurried or denied. We embrace the memories of what we had once known and use them to appreciate more deeply what is yet to come. We look for and eventually find our own meaning as we re-examine that which we accept through faith.