Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Life Changes In The Instant"

In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion examines the changes which she underwent in the year following the loss of her husband. She writes of losing cognition and of being unable to perform daily tasks. She also relates episodes of flashbacks—some expected, some not—as she works her way through the vortex of grief.

On December 30, 2003, an ordinary day in some respects and extraordinary in others, Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne prepared to eat dinner. They had just returned from the ICU, where their adult daughter Quintana was fighting for her life as she battled septicemia. As was their custom, the Dunnes prepared to eat in front of the fireplace. The candles glowed, and the couple looked forward to as normal and relaxing an evening as possible:
“We sat down. My attention was on mixing the salad.

“John was talking, then he wasn’t.”
(page 10)
The shock of losing her husband of forty years to a massive coronary leaves Didion unprepared for how that loss would impact her thought processes. She chides herself for being unable to remember Dunne’s last words. She obsesses over the moments of that evening and, at the same time, has to deal with her daughter’s illness and, five months later, her daughter’s second life-and-death battle—this time with a brain hemorrhage. Didion pours over her husband’s autopsy report, searches medical reference books to see if his death could have been prevented, and relives events of the past when she travels through familiar places. She struggles not to forget a single detail of the life she and her husband shared.

But after a year, Didion realizes that forgetting certain details is not a betrayal of her husband’s life, but rather an affirmation that a survivor’s life needs to go on. She begins to enjoy life again, although on different terms.

In her book, Didion points out that imagined grief differs from the actual experience of mourning a sudden and important loss. In her words,
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
(page 188)
The vortex of grief is something with which we all have to contend on some level. The healing begins when we are ready, with our hearts, to realize the following:
“…[W]e try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”
(page 225)
We can never truly prepare for a terrible loss, but we can learn from Joan Didion that the vortex of grief is both universal and personal. In reading this memoir, we who have deeply mourned a loss will understand that we are not alone, and that understanding will help us to know ourselves better.

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Sherwin B. Nuland's How We Die belong in every home and, if possible, should be read before the losses which one day come to almost all of us.

(The Year of Magical Thinking deservedly received the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction)


At 3/26/2006 1:50 PM, Blogger LASunsett said...

I would add to these two, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death And Dying

Ma-in-law is better now, but still has her days. The issue now, is whether she can live by herself in an independent living retirement home setting, or not.

As one who lost a 16 year old brother 27 years ago, I became acquainted with grief, early. Since then, the two closest people to me that have died were, my maternal grandmother and my adopted father. Mother is still alive and healthy, as far as we know. Biological dad is alive too. No other siblings except a half brother that I am not particularly close to.

But believe me when I say this, I count myself as a man, most fortunate. My wife is healthy, kids are healthy, and my grandson is healthy. The future holds what it holds, but for now I will be happy in the present, and from those fond memories of those that I have lost.

I will get this book you reviewed, as soon as I can find to time to enter a bookstore. Thanks.

At 3/26/2006 2:06 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Didion also mentions Kubler-Ross. I read those materials years ago and occasionally review them through the public library. Those materials helped me to stand up to a greedy cemetery director in 1998.

Nuland's book has helped me through some difficult medical-proxy decisions.

A friend of mine who was recently widowed says that nothing can prepare one for the death of a spouse. The same is true for the death of one's child, of course.

I am an only, but my cousin--like a brother to me and an only too--suddenly dropped dead at the age of 49, much as Didion relates happened to her husband. When I got the phone call on a summer's evening with all the windows wide open, my neighbors a block away heard me scream. Then, I had to go over to my cousin's mother's house and tell her, who had been widowed at the age of 33 some 40 years before, that her only child was gone.

I never want to live through another night like that one on July 7, 1992. I thought I'd die of grief or possibly lose my mind before the sun came up!

Can you imagine how Didion must have felt? She lost her husband, without warning, and her daughter was at death's door.

Life is so hard sometimes. And reading about what she went through is important--a universal message.

And, yes, you've been blessed LA. I've been burying people since I was four years old. Such is the price of being the youngest of my generation in this family.

At 3/26/2006 4:29 PM, Blogger MissingLink said...

Losing someone is always beyond what words can decribe.
Is part of us, our own ego which vanishes forever as well as the person we loved.

At 3/26/2006 6:01 PM, Blogger Pastorius said...

Thanks for sharing this. I have How We Die. I bought it to study for a fiction project I was working on. It is horrific. I am surprised to see it recommended. But, I guess what you are saying is it is best for people to understand that death is not like in the movies, so that they can understand the types of decisions they may need to make when the bad stuff starts happening.

At 3/26/2006 6:53 PM, Blogger WomanHonorThyself said...

Thanks for the heads up Rosie..nice of u !

At 3/26/2006 7:35 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Yes, some of Nuland's book IS horrific. But my mother had to make certain decisions on my grandmother's behalf. I wish we'd had Nuland's book at that time, a few agonizing days. I was totally inexperienced as to certain aspects of death, but my mother--a country girl from the hills of east Tennessee--knew what she was doing. But I thought she was being hard-hearted. How wrong I was!

I was the primary caregiver for my father for almost 10 years. Having read Nuland's book, I could understand everything the doctor was saying to me. Because I had read How We Die, I understood what I was seeing and was better able to cope emotionally. This was in direct contrast to what I had gone through some 10 years earlier with my mother. (See paragraph further down)

One of Didion's points is this: even though we might intellectually understand what Nuland says, we still have to deal with the emotions of loss. After that first year, Nuland's book provides some comfort. But Didion's book offers more than Nuland's book in that regard.

All the above is not to ignore the importance of faith during the vortex of grief; Didion mentions much about faith in her book. But I know from personal experience how grief can warp one's soul. When my mother died (I had spoken to the doctor about three hours before, and he assured me that nothing was seriously wrong; I should have followed my instincts, I guess), I thought that I was ill and about to die of suffocation. A close friend who had lost her brother saw me through the crisis of my being unable to breathe. And she helped me to pray, too. I couldn't at the time; Didion speaks of that reaction as well.

It helps to know in advance that such physical reactions are normal. It helps to know in advance the physicality of dying, which Nuland bluntly relates.

PS: I am a realist, a Steinbeck reader. I'd much rather know the realities.

At 3/26/2006 7:42 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Missing Link,
Losing someone is always beyond what words can decribe.

Yes, words fail. Didion mentions how she started keeping a sort of diary, then had to stop. She couldn't write her way out of the grief. After the year passed, she was able to write again.

Writing this book was part of her healing process. I'm glad that she was willing to publish what she had to say. I'm sure that the writing of this memoir was a struggle in many ways.

...our own ego which vanishes forever as well as the person we loved

Yes! Didion has a different look in her eyes now.

At 3/26/2006 7:45 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...


Now I'll have to answer to AOW, Always, Watch, Watcher, AND Rosie. LOL.

At 3/28/2006 12:29 PM, Blogger MonicaR said...

I read 'On Death and Dying' when I was 15 - I will have to re-read it. The other books you recommend sound heavy but important. Thanks.

I haven't had to deal with death in the family for a long, long time. (Except my father who I hadn't spoken to in decades and that was strange but no MAJOR upheaval for a lot of different reasons - but some reactions were surprising) Better to be prepared and understand what is happening.

At 3/28/2006 8:14 PM, Anonymous the merry widow said...

I understand. How little we know of the comfort it brings when someone looks in your eyes and says that! You get a ray of hope that no one who has not gone through it can give! I am still close to the elderly widow at my church who also lost her husband to cancer, the chemo, the tests, the pills, the prayers, the desperation to take it yourself and spare your beloved. The knowing for 11 months that you were going to be a widow in time for the holidays! I avoided Thanksgiving for 2 years, Christmas was anything but, and dear G*D anniversary, then birthday, then holding together for your 12 yr. old "Daddy's girl" and your not yet 14 son who no longer has his role model. If it weren't for the Lord and my church, I would not be coherent today. It has been 3 yrs.3 months and 29 days. Yeah.


At 3/28/2006 8:34 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Merry Widow,
Thank you so much for stopping by.

Holidays are still very difficult for me. I lost my mother in 1987 and my father in 1998, my dearest cousin in 1992. I still get blue around the holidays. A certain emptiness is there and always will be as these family members were such an important part of those holidays.

Faith sees me through, but in those months following the shock of the losses, communing with the Lord was well nigh impossible. One of my mother's friends told me that such a shut-down is normal; she is a very Godly person, filled with the Spirit, but she said, "Right now, reading the Word is like reading the Sears & Roebuck Catalog. Don't worry about it."

My mother's friend was right. The healing of the soul takes time.

Many years have passed since those losses which so deeply affected me. Reading Didion's words were a help, even all this time later.

We feel alone in the vortex of grief, and in many ways we are alone. But others are there as well. Knowing that brings a unique comfort.

Stay strong. God bless you and your children.

At 3/28/2006 8:46 PM, Anonymous themerrywidow said...

Thank you! One of our pastors later told me that he was praying,"G*D I don't know how to pray for her?" the reply he got was to pray for strength and grace, the next Sunday he heard me answer someone "That G*D had given me strength and grace." It was and is a blessing to have Godly praying friends, they carry you when you can't carry on. We are doing well, my daughter Rachel is 15 now and wants to be a model, my son Nathan(17) will soon be joinning the Marines. I homeschool, so I just kept it up, with help, as the best way to go on. To much had changed to change that also. Believe me, if it weren't for G*D, I wouldn't be very merry, but I am(and have 2 pairs of bright red shoes to prove it!)

Thanks, and you be blessed, hear?

At 3/28/2006 8:53 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Merry Widow,
You homeschool? I teach groups of homeschoolers!

His ways are mysterious, huh? Our conversation and the prayer you mentioned above.

Enjoy those red shoes.

At 3/28/2006 8:55 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Merry Widow,
PS: Ever blessed! But sometimes I don't have the sense to recognize the blessing. LOL.


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