Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”

In grief we strive, perhaps harder than ever. As our mind and body try to hold on to time, knowledge, and reality, this grip causes physical pain.1

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is an account of this grief-led striving following the completely extraordinary and unexpected death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, at their dinner table.

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact life ends.

In grief, we strive for company, witnesses.2

Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner, all those who picked up the plates … I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them.

In the midst of company, we also seek solitude.

After that first night I would not be alone for weeks (Jim and his wife Gloria would fly in from California the next day. Nick would come back to town, Tony and his wife Rosemary would come down from Connecticut, Jose would not go to Las Vegas, our assistant Sharon would come back from skiing, there would never not be people in the house), but I needed that first night to be alone.

I needed to be alone so he could come back.

This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.

In grief, we strive for poise. Poise obtained by balance, posturing and steadfast head up. For Didion, this poise comes from intellectual distance and precise observation contained in this account. “This is my attempt to make sense,” she wrote.

In grief, we strive to communicate. Language falls woefully short, lacking movement, lacking collage, lacking ability to express the simultaneous explosion of thoughts in our grieving minds.

Euphorbia horrida, a particularly gnarly succulent that refuses to shed its dead stems. “Thus my sorrow always renewed,” wrote 18th century poet, Arthur Rimbaud of his own pain. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is the case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, and let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is the case in which I need more than words to find the meaning.
This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.

Ultimately, in grief we strive for meaning, purpose, and some—any—distinctive path in this new silent universe where there is nothing but abstraction. Even the mountains are silent, wrote T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land.”

In grief our greatest pillars of being disintegrate.

The Year of Magical Thinking is time-bound, beginning with Dunne’s collapse, passing through Didion’s aftershock, the funeral, the “craziness,” and, ultimately, settling down in the complete emptiness of a world without he who has died.

Neither Didion’s magical thinking nor her account in The Year of Magical Thinking pulls us out of grief because Didion herself wasn’t pulled out of grief. She pulls us into it and holds us tight.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor do I want to finish the year. The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.

[…]

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

The dead are dead, and we are unassailably alive. But, Didion concludes, the dead will always have been.

Read more on mortality, grief, and the abstraction of life in Robert McCrum’s3 memoir of living with death or Max Porter’s prose/poem about a crow that abides with a family in grief.

I’ve compiled a few more thoughts in Our Unknowable Real Mortality, Do Things Exist Where They Are Buried?, and Didion’s second—and equally magical—account of grief, Blue Nights, closing a couplet of pain no one should have to endure.

Joan Didion. © The Examined Life