By Joan Didion
On Wednesday, March 19, I sat in the living room and wrote my last post on this site, while Thomas, my partner for almost eight years, lay down for an afternoon nap that he wouldn’t wake up from. Thomas had been quite ill for several months, and I thought I had to some degree prepared myself for any possible outcome, but the immediate implosion of one’s life is literally unimaginable. There is no way to prepare for this, and no way to understand it without going through it. I don’t have the words for what the past couple of months have been like; everything seems insufficient.
A couple of weeks later I ran across a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I went back and forth on whether to read it; I wasn’t sure I was ready, but a phrase on inside blurb resonated with me: “This powerful book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the ‘weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.’” I felt so cut loose myself that even reading those words felt like a stabilizing force.
The Year of Magical Thinking describes the year in which Didion’s adult daughter almost died of a sudden blood infection and her husband did die of heart failure. She describes her various emotional states, along with research she did around the psychology of grief. I could read this book when I rejected more direct help books because I could experience her story at a little bit of a distance, even while I felt “yes, this is exactly how it is” at the same time.
It wasn’t always the same, of course; it couldn’t be since grief is so personal. I also had to remind myself that Didion writes from a world of great privilege: both she and her husband are renowned authors, very comfortably off in both finances and independence. They had top-quality medical care, and Didion was able to spend all her time and resources with her slowly recovering daughter and her own slow emotional recovery. Several times I had to decide not to get resentful of what she had, but instead to take advantage of what she was giving—a thoughtfully written account that kept me from feeling quite so isolated.
Several people expressed concern about reading this book right now, since it is not an uplifting or inspirational story. However, the reality is so much worse that her words were soothing and comforting. She doesn’t have any answers because there aren’t any. Didion simply gave me a way to define, and then begin to accept, something that still often seems indefinable and unacceptable in a very literal sense.