I recently finished Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking, a memoir about love, loss and grief. I’ll confess, it might have been the first book I’ve read — word for word, cover to cover — in a couple of years.
I’ve never been a fast reader — something I’ve often felt tremendous shame about. And though I love to read, I seem to process things very slowly, which has often frustrated me (and others) over the years. Still, I’ve never forgotten what my seventh grade Language Arts teacher once said, “This is nothing you should ever worry about. You simply tend to savor every word.” With The Year Of Magical Thinking, I did exactly that.
The book follows Didion’s first year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, a sudden event that occurred while their only child, Quintana, was critically ill.
I’d only recently received another Didion title, Blue Nights, as a Christmas gift, but something — and I don’t know what — held me back from reading it. Then, when I saw The Year Of Magical Thinking in January, tucked into a shelf in a used bookstore, something told me I had to pick it up. I realized I had to read that Didion memoir first, so I did. And now, I can’t wait to dive in to Blue Nights.
I can only imagine the reviews that followed the release of The Year Of Magical Thinking: The book is raw, direct, authentic and revelatory, describing in vivid detail the emotional roller coaster that follows the death of a loved one. Didion, through her own sorrow, offers a present and familiar voice to the lonely, bereft and achingly bereaved.
Of my own experience reading the book after having recently lost someone I love, I felt understood, validated, and even welcomed into a club which I had absolutely no intention of joining. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Didion writes on page 188. To me, her words say, Now that you’re here, it’s counterproductive to fight it. This is how it can feel. This is how we describe those feelings. This is how we keep going through the process.
She describes mourning, meaning, self-pity and selfishness. She writes of anger, associations, and previous assumptions. She touches on regret, reclusiveness, and the quest for resolution. She does not, however, offer solutions or directives toward overcoming (or achieving) any of those things, and therein lies the remarkable beauty of her book: She simply gets it.
Until you’re faced with unimaginable loss, you can’t imagine what it feels to be truly adrift.
Didion writes, “People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of one who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.” (p 75)
At times I certainly have felt invisible.
Other times, I’ve wanted to be invisible — but just could not. I’ve wanted not to burst into tears in the grocery store; to not answer the door for a well-meaning friend; to not celebrate my birthday following my sister’s memorial. I don’t want to be sad, to not eat, or to remember upon waking that my sister is actually and permanently gone.
Didion writes, “I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal…On the night John died we were thirty-one days short of our fortieth anniversary…I wanted more than a night of memories and sighs. I wanted to scream. I wanted him back.” (p 75). And it is from this agonizing passage that I cling to five words with vigor and, ultimately, with hope: for a period of time.
Rationally, I know raw grief does not last forever, and that my love for my sister did not die with her. If I were speaking to someone in my shoes, I know I’d say, “It will take as long as it takes to feel steady again, and it will happen. Keep going.”
Thank you, Joan Didion, for the gift of your words, and for writing so bravely through your own pain.
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