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A Grief Autopsied

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of the months following her husband’s sudden death, is part grief journal, part literature review, and part cultural commentary.

Grief journal: “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.” (p. 33)

Literature review: “From Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care … I learned for example that the most frequent immediate responses to death were shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief ….” (p. 46).

Cultural commentary: “One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition …, the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. … Death was up close, at home.” (pp. 60-61)

Structurally, the book leaps among these facets, and in time, moving back and forth between life with and without her husband.

The varying degree of detail gives the book an uneven tone. Descriptions of significant past events are crisp: “We were married on the afternoon of January 30, 1964, a Thursday, at the Catholic Mission of San Juan Bautista in San Benito County, California. John wore a navy blue suit from Chipp. I wore a short white silk dress I had bought at Ransohoff’s in San Francisco on the day John Kennedy was killed.” (p. 69).

But Ms. Didion’s memories of the time surrounding her husband’s passing are fuzzy: “I have no idea which subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking.” (p. 10)

One gets the sense that this choppiness reflects Ms. Didion’s emotional rudderlessness as she struggles to move forward after “the instant” when “life as you know it ends” (p. 3). Such rudderlessness left this reader feeling that the book may have been a therapeutic attempt for the writer, but that it offers little hope or solace to others in grief.

Ms. Didion offers a transparent look at her own process of grieving, which apparently involved poking at, but not wrestling with, tough questions. She seems to believe that the answers aren’t discernible, and wouldn’t satisfy if they were. “I realized that the answer to the question made no difference. It had happened. It was the new fact on the ground.” (p. 100) The result presents thinking that seems more academic than magical, a poking around at grief and its many manifestations in a vain search for answers that can’t cure its cause, a picture of the suffering of those who mourn without hope.

C.S. Lewis unintentionally set the standard for the mourning memoir with A Grief Observed. Ms. Didion’s contribution might be called “A Grief Autopsied”.

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