Friday, May 08, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking review

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful account of the author's grief after her husband John's sudden death from a heart attack. While this happened, their daughter Quintana was on life support. Once Quintana recovered, Joan was faced with the task of when to tell Quintana that her father had died. Didion gives us an unflinching look at grief and the things we tell ourselves during times of loss, the so-called "magical thinking." Anyone who has lost a loved one will relate to the things Didion told herself at times, such as not giving away John's shoes because he would need something to wear if he was to come back. You'll also relate to the constant examination of the final moments, days, months of John's life.

"He said these things in the taxi between Beth Israel North and our apartment either 3 hours before he died or twenty-seven hours before he did, I try to remember which and cannot."

I so appreciated Didion's honest protrayal of what loss looks like. The concern that Didion could have done something, anything, to prevent John's death. And the way Didion approaches healing, grief, "moving on." The fact that she mourned her husband while her daughter's life also hung in the balance is truly remarkable. Someone with a recent loss might need to wait before picking this up, depending on where they're at in their own process. I've already recommended this book to a couple of friends and clients working through their grief. I'll leave you with this excerpt:

"There was a divide.
The abrupt finality of this divide was something about which I thought a great deal during the late spring and summer after I came home from UCLA. A close friend, Carolyn Lelyveld, died in May, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Tony Dunne's wife, Rosemary Breslin, died in June, at Columbia-Presbyterian. In each of those cases the phrase "after a long illness" would have seemed to apply, trailing its misleading suggestion of release, relief, resolution. In each of those long illnesses the possibility of death had been in the picture, in Carolyn's case for some months, in Rosemary's since 1989, when she was 32. Yet having seen the picture in no way deflected, when it came, the swift empty loss of the actual event. It was still black and white. Each of them had been in the last instant alive, and then dead. I realized that I had never believed in the words I had learned as a child in order to be confirmed as an Episcopalian: I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of the Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, amen.
I did not believe in the resurrection of the body...Nor had my Catholic husband.
I imagined this way of thinking to be clarifying, but in point of fact it was so muddled as to contradict even itself.
I did not believe in the resurrection of the body but I still believed that given the right circumstances he would come back."

4 comments:

David G. Markham said...

I read Ms. Didion's book a few years ago when it first came out.

I was interested especially because two of my children had been killed in a drunk driving crash in 1993. Ryan was 8 and Brigid was 5.

My father died in my house after a 2 year battle with cancer when he was 65 and I was 36 surrounded by my wife and 7 children.

While I am sympathetic to Ms. Didion's description of her experience, I don't find it exceptional nor worthy of emulation and it struck me as a tad bit narcissistic.

Death happens. It is part of life. This should leave no one shocked although sudden death unexpected does have that fact but any of us could go at any time as my children killed by a drunk driver did.

Grieving is appropriat and "normal" response to loss and magical thinking is part of the process. People deserve our understanding, support, and compassion, and yet, would it seem unfeeling or cold if I said I think we make too much out of it?

Thank you for your post and your thoughtful blog,

David Markham

David G. Markham said...

Hi Leigh:

Check this out.

http://markhamsbehavioralhealth.blogspot.com/2009/05/ryan-would-be-25-today_09.html

All the best,

David Markham

LeighSW said...

Thank you for sharing, David. Thanks also for the link to your blog post- I can't imagine what your family has gone through.

You're right that we sometimes make too much of our grief. It's a hard balance to sort through a jumble of emotions while life keeps trucking along. Even though we know death is a part of life, it can still seem like a shock, even when it's expected, as in the case of a terminal illness. I don't think Didion was offering a "one size fits all" approach. (She certainly downplayed the loss of a parent or other loved one compared to the loss of a spouse or child.) To me, the beauty of the book was looking at her experience of magical thinking and realizing that I had similar thoughts after my own losses.

David G. Markham said...

Hi Leigh:

You have a very good point. Magical thinking is a big part of grieving I think especially in the early stages. I associate to Kubler- Ross's description of bargaining.

I still turn about quickly in the mall, for example, when a five year old child calls out, "Daddy". And in the instinctive reaction there is the drop in my heart when I realize that it is not Brigid, she is gone.

Your point is excellent and I will take another look at Didion again.

All the best,

David Markham