On Grief: Reflections from Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

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The universe works in very strange ways.

I should learn to trust it perhaps more so than I have permitted myself to in the past, especially when it always seems like people or things show up randomly, totally unannounced, but always when you need them the most.

Such was the case with the sudden appearance of Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking within my life.

I’ve mentioned once or twice in previous posts that I belong to a book sharing website called Paperback Swap. There, members are able to trade books they have already read and don’t wish to hold onto for books that they want to add to their library. The system functions on credits; a credit is applied to the account when a member has received their requested book and it is in fair condition (sometimes, people are overly picky about this, and you can read my rant about that here).

I recently had 4 free swaps credited to my account that would expire if I didn’t use them before my yearly membership ran out. Without a renewal, I would be subject to paying extra fees in order to trade, something that seems to totally ruin the purpose of a book sharing website, but I understand that administrative costs can be expensive, so I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. With the clock ticking, I began to search through some of the available books, none of them truly jumping out at me.

“I have a whole bookshelf filled with unread books,” I thought. “Maybe I should just let the credits go in order not to have to continue making small stacks of them on the floor beside the bookshelf.”

I can never turn down free books. I should know better than that by now. Small stacks needed to be made.

I continued to scroll through titles, paging through the fiction section, then stumbling into the memoirs. One, hidden away toward the back of the memoir section under a title of The Year of Magical Thinking, seemed interesting enough, so I ordered it. I cannot for the life of me tell you what I thought it would be about, particularly because the cover is simply white with text on it; no pictures on the front cover to offer up any hints as to the contents of the pages. I suppose I thought it might be some kind of positive, upbeat, fairy tale-esque memoir, maybe something that would be inspiring to read. I don’t read that stuff often, but I thought it might be a good change of pace from the dark trenches of Russian classics I’ve been working through.

Little did I realize it was actually a memoir on grief, turbulence, and change in the life of Joan Didion when her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, suddenly passed away from a massive coronary event in front of his wife, and as her only daughter, Quintana, lay on life support in a New York hospital, suffering from horrific complications from a serious infection. A memoir on grief was on its way to me whether I liked it or not; it was bringing all the emotions that one does not want to touch with a thirty-nine and half foot pole, and it was coming no matter what.

A memoir on grief was on its way and arrived only a few weeks before I could mark the three-year anniversary of my father’s death.

Funny how the universe passes little things to you now and again.

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My dad and I went I was about a 1 year old in my grandparents’ house in Florida. 1990.

Grief changes us. No matter who the deceased is, there is a change, and The Year of Magical Thinking helped me to recognize that others suffer[ed] through these changes as well, that this is not an abnormal process by any means. I struggle with this concept even now; there’s something so irregular and so unnatural about feeling grief because many people, myself included, experience it in waves. Some days, you’re golden and can carry on “normally.” Other days, you’re bawling on the bathroom floor, remembering all the minute details of the event that sent someone onto the next life. It’s a constant fluctuation, and Joan Didion describes this perfectly throughout this book.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

When someone dies, we’re never exactly the same as we were before, even though appearances may say otherwise, but internally, as Didion describes so well, there is a shift in us as we attempt to navigate the new normal.

Life goes on, and normalcy returns. You wake up the same way, go to work the same way, meet friends the same way, eat dinner the same way, but nothing is truly the same after someone dies. The old normal, the life you knew when the deceased was still alive, ceases to exist. It has been completely and utterly obliterated. “

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star (184).

You can tourniquet that wound and try to stop the blood from gushing out of the body as much as you physically can, but a certain point, you realize the exercise in futility. You cannot bring the person or the old normal back to life. Life changes in an instant, something Didion echoes throughout the book.

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Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion, Malibu 1976. Back cover of The Year of Magical Thinking.

There then becomes a new normal, a new routine that resembles the old one in many ways but has also been tweaked. The new normal is surreal at first, and nothing totally feels comfortable. It’s almost like wearing a pair of shoes that are slightly too tight; they pinch a little, but you can get by as long as there’s no 5ks to run. Focusing on the tiny details of the loved one’s death becomes less of a priority, and these memories begin to become blurry. I could heavily relate to Didion’s recording her experience in this memoir. There is a fear of forgetting, a fear of betraying the deceased by not remembering everything that occurred in losing them. Three years after my father’s death, I find myself unable to remember when or why certain events happened. I rely on others to fill in the gaps in my memory, and I feel almost as if this was an attempt on Didion’s part to write down the knowledge before it becomes lost.

I was reluctant to read The Year of Magical Thinking out of fear. Becoming emotional and reflecting on one’s grief is healthy but has the potential to be scary. But reading and reflecting on Didion’s experience allowed for a comfortable place to express my own experience and remember that grief is a roller coaster. Some days are good, and some days are bad, but allowing ourselves to experience this grief without feeling shame or guilt is vital for healing.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

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