The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

This week, I am reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I went into it pretty naively, and it was only when a friend pointed out how solemn a read it was did I fully realize I was reading a memoir entirely about grief. And, more naively, that I would not be able to relate to it very deeply.

I would not be able to relate to it very deeply because I have not experienced a lot of death so far, not death so near to me it shakes me as the loss of Didion's husband shook her. I have lost a few family members, and I always felt like there was something wrong with me, in my reaction. I could sympathize, but it was difficult to empathize. I want to say it is because of the few states, or country, or ocean that divided us. It made it very easy to ignore. Though, from what I have read now, perhaps that is grief too.

Particularly interesting to me in this book is the amount of reading Didion did on the subject of death, loss, funerals and grief, and the amount of excerpts from these readings that she included. Some go to solitude, others to family and friends, and some, to books, for support. I hope I am a bit like Didion in this way. 

At other times, and in bizarre ways, I could relate. She mentions an interview with a mother who has lost her son to war. This woman reflects on the belief she had that, if she did not let the uniformed man at her door into her home, then her son would not have died, would still be breathing. In reading this, I thought of last year, when I lost my cat of 19 years. My mother sent a text about needing to speak to me and I, knowing immediately what it meant, managed to ignore my mother for a good few weeks (sorry mom!). I convinced myself that if I did not have that conversation, my cat would not be dead.

Didion lost a husband and I lost a cat. I know it sounds adolescent to draw such a comparison. Perhaps, though, it also captures how universal an emotion grief is, eliciting a recognizable human reaction. The mind and body work in extraordinary ways to protect from grief. Once that protection is down, the mind and body respond to grief just as extraordinarily. The loss of appetite, the vulnerability, the vacancy in normal life. This I could imagine quite easily, having experienced a similar reaction after a very difficult break up a few years ago. Again, an adolescent, shallow comparison? Ah well, lived experiences should not be judged. It is far more interesting to find the similarities than to note the differences. That is the reason we read and wonder after all!

We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Micaela Neumann