"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.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.
“John was talking, then he wasn’t.”
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.”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.”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)