Joan Didion began writing The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative of her response to the death of her husband and severe illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, on October 4, 2004, and finished the manuscript 88 days later on New Year’s Eve.
She went on a book tour following the book’s release, doing many readings and promotional interviews, and has said she found the process very therapeutic during her period of mourning.
The Year of Magical Thinking was immediately acclaimed as a classic book about mourning.
It won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.
We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.
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 the 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.
In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail.
The worst days will be the earliest days.
We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.
When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.
We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?
We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.
We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.
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.
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 someone 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.
I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal.
I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved.
I understood for the first time the power in the image of the rivers, the Styx, the Lethe, the cloaked ferryman with his pole.
I understood for the first time the meaning in the practice of suttee.
Widows did not throw themselves on the burning raft out of grief.
The burning raft was instead an accurate representation of the place to which their grief (not their families, not the community, not custom, their grief) had taken them.
„The Year of Magical Thinking“