The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My dear friend Brandy has been suggesting this book to me for years now, and while I’ve even suggested it to others, I hadn’t picked it up. It’s not that I don’t trust Brandy’s taste in books, but more that I know her taste, and while it is spectacular and discerning, it also more open to sadness and grief than mine usually is. But when she brought this book up to me again recently, I decided that it was time to take the plunge.

I should mention that I’m surprisingly superstitious. When I was younger I read Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, and at the back of each there was an author’s note where he discussed the process of writing the book. A reoccurring theme of these essays was that whatever topic he was writing on (time, death, war, birth) seemed to manifest itself more during the writing of the book, almost as if he were drawing it to himself by writing.  This has stuck with me like you wouldn’t believe.  Not only do I shy away from writing about certain subjects for fear of invoking them (I have a great “child vanishing” story in my head that will never be written), but I find that I avoid reading about them too.

So reading this book was extraordinarily uncomfortable. It’s Didion’s memoir of the year after her husband’s sudden death, during which time she was not only trying to come to terms with his death, her loss, her grief, her memories, but also the  life threatening illness of her daughter. (I found out today that her daughter died after she published the book, which is just gutting.)  Her writing is so honest, so raw, that it cuts through any mental barriers you may have up and gets straight to your heart.

I have a hard time with grief, specifically other people’s. I don’t know what to do with it. As I heard it put, I tend to go straight for the “comfort those who stand in need of comfort ” instead of “mourn with those who mourn”. (They weren’t saying that about me, but about the concept- you know what I mean.)  People who are grieving don’t always need comforting, but them feeling better would make me feel better, so that’s what I’ve tended to go with, and I fear that in the past that’s been harmful.

One of the reasons I don’t know what to do with others grief is because I’m scared of it. I don’t want to go there, don’t want to admit those things that Didion manages to sneak right past those barriers: we are not in control, bad news comes to everyone, tragedy strikes on ordinary days. (It seems fitting that I’m writing this on 9/11.)

So what do we do with that knowledge? Obsessively check on our kids in their sleep to make sure they’re still breathing? Push it to the back of our minds and move on, blissfully unaware? Something in the middle? That’s a question I’m still grappling with, but I’m grateful that this book got me thinking about it.

2 thoughts on “The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  1. I like this post. It’s really honest and I think that is what is the most important. Everyone mourns and grieves differently and it is presumptuous to think that everyone should grieve just like I do or that my way is the best way or that someone is “sadder” than I am or not sad enough. Very interesting topic.

  2. Brandy on

    I love you darling, and the “comfort vs mourn” idea is so neat. It reminds me of Paul (?) in the Bible saying we are all part of the body, and the hand isn’t better or worse than the head. When someone is grieving they need both comforting and mourning. I’m so very glad you are my friend and SO glad you read it!

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