Joan Didion

Blue Nights

“What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

When she lost her husband to a heart attack, Joan Didion (December 5, 1934 – December 23, 2021) treaded grief and wrote the extraordinary The Year of Magical Thinking. A year later, her daughter died after a sustained illness. Blue Nights is about her daughter’s death.

Whereas Magical Thinking was an eviscerating, immediate account of grief, Blue Nights takes a more removed (but no less painful) view.

It is horrible to see oneself die without children.

Napoleon Bonaparte said that.

What a greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead.

Euripedes said that.

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I said that.

The loss of a child is an inconceivable thing. Unimaginable. It throws us into abstraction.

Close-up of "Pierced Form" by Barbara Hepworth, 1962.
“Pierced Form” by Barbara Hepworth, 1962. Carved from Nigerian guarea wood. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Didion tries to right herself by readjusting her focus from present to past to present. She digs into minutia and scrapes at broad questions. Her writing is deliberate and unaffected by the audience. She, at times, abandons the logic that abandoned her.

The way in which you live most of your life in California and then you don’t? The way in which your awareness of this passing time—this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience—multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life.

Cultural critic and essayist Christopher Hitchens thought Didion’s book was a form of memory. “In this supremely tender work of memory, Didion is paradoxically insistent that as long as one person is condemned to remember, there can still be pain and loss and anguish it is.”1

blue nights
Blue nights in London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Jumping into memory (which many writers and thinkers have considered a space and place), Didion is a storyteller, a filmmaker. She’s deciding what to show and what to name because it’s the only way she knows. The language itself is invented, new.

In Blue Nights, Didion clings to what remains, the parts of her daughter, the thing she made precious by caring:

There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently when I thought I did. A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementoes, their “things,” their totems.

Didion, a sharp, witty journalist and novelist of culture and society, is at her best here. These books never could have been written had John or Quintana lived. Not just because the subject matter wasn’t relevant, but the Joan Didion who wrote them wasn’t extant. The regurgitation and regeneration of self in grief created her.

I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.

losing the thing unimaginable
“The Sick Child” etching by Edvard Munch 1894. Munch’s guilt of survival while his sister died from tuberculosis inspired his reworking of this piece so many times. Each capturing that moment before death. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Ivarsøy, Dag Andre © Tate

Read more about the physical ache of grief from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, an illuminative essay on grief that asks “Where do we go once we die?” among other things. I also warmly recommend Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, a story of post-grief retrenchment and how to reopen a shattered self.

Joan Didion. © The Examined Life