More book love for you today. This book is one of my all time favorites. One of the greats. If there was one book I had to choose to be stuck alone with, forever, I would choose Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion writes with the ease, honesty, and precision most writers would kill for. In my opinion, this book belongs with the greats. It should be recommended to everyone, read by everyone, discussed by everyone, devoured.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a story about the death of Joan’s husband. “A sudden sudden massive coronary event. One minute he was there, and then he wasn’t.” This book takes you through all the details: the phone call she places to 911, the pronouncement of his death, the paperwork. She talks of the days after, the days before. She talks about the details of John’s health, the life they shared with their daughter, Quintana Roo. She talks about John, their routines, their love, their life together. It’s a beautiful story, and her writing is gorgeous.
What I love about this book is how Joan, very descriptively, portrays what grief is like. To really get a handle on how awful it can be. It’s hard to put yourself in that place, particularly if you have not experienced grief in this way. There are other forms certainly, but to lose a husband? I cannot imagine. This book does a spot-on job of pulling you right into her grief: right into the after, the moving on, if you could call it that, the living. Most stories only tell you of the events leading up to the event; it’s rare to find a story of what happens after the death, and I loved that about this book.
Joan was the cool customer. She the researched the grief. She turned to CS Lewis, The Merck Manual, various textbooks and journals, and poems to help her understand grief and it’s process.
“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.”
She gains some insight from the material she reads, but she also disputes it. Talking about a particular study done by Dr. Volkan, she argues that it’s not possible to derive an understanding of the mourner, unless you were either the mourner or the dead.
“Were you there? No. You might have been useful with the thermometer, but you were not there. I don’t need to “review the circumstances of the death. I was there.” ”
One book, that particularly gave Joan some comfort, was Emily Post’s 1922 book on Etiquette. She recalls her mom giving her the book on one snowed in vacation in Colorado, and found herself reverting to the “matter-of-fact wisdom” on how to care for the grieving.
She talks of the moments just after the death, the ones months after. She talks about the things she could continue to do normally, but also the things she couldn’t. She couldn’t eat in the dining room anymore. She ate in the kitchen. She talks about planning her evenings, carefully. Placing her order for breakfast, plotting her trips carefully. But then there would be the one instant, when she saw a movie theater she and John visited once, or a stretch of highway, and the grief would flood in. “There were many such traps,” she says, when talking of the familiar places, the memories.
This book will change the way you look at grief and death and “moving on”. It changed it for me, and I am thankful I picked it up to read. It’s one of my all-time, top five, books. I carry it with me constantly, reading my favorite passages. It’s one of the most poignant books, and I highly, highly recommend. I’ll leave you with this:
“I realize as I write this, that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.”