What do you do when the impossible happens? When your husband dies and your daughter is in a hospital in a coma? How do you survive?
Joan Didion tries to understand how she did it. She does not offer advice or solutions, it is an honest and brutal vivisection of her own grief. It is her attempt to understand what happened to her. She is a writer so a year after the worst has happened, she deals with it using her craft, trying to put things in order and understand them by writing them down. She tries from a distance to unpick everything that happened and how her mind reacted to it. Her family always believed in reading and learning about what happens to us is the best way to deal with things, so she started reading a lot about grief, not self-help books, but academic work and literature. Didion shares what she learned, taking a look at grief from all angles, as if it could help to get through it.
Through her reading and analysing her own mental state in the months that followed her husband’s death, she starts understanding that grief is a state that in any other circumstances would be called a mental disease, but because we’ll all grief at some point, because it is so “common” it is still considered normal. No one tries to treat grief. There is not much support from the medical profession. What is more, the modern society managed to completely banish grief from the public sphere. There is no space for grief outside of ones own house, everyone is expected to cope, hold it together, move on. As a society we don’t even know how to support grieving people, i experienced it myself when one of my coworkers lost a close family member. I was completely lost as to how I should behave, apart from offering platitudes. Didion shows how in previous centuries social support of the grieving was codified by etiquette and how those norms and rituals helped all involved, because they made grief socially acceptable. But now we managed to completely oust death and grief from public space and lock it in the hospital and home respectively.
Didion also shares a lot of her happy memories, she clings to them, looking for comfort even if initially they make her suffer more. She coolly looks at how long she has been in denial, not by a conscious decision, but almost subconsciously, as if her brain decided that’s what it needs to save itself from the unthinkable. She tries to unpick it in order to get past it, logically she knows she has to move on, she has to let go, but this knowledge does not make it any easier.
It is a unique book, it had me in tears by page four, but not because it is so emotional, but because it is an attempt at taking a step back to understand, heal and reclaim oneself, no matter how it hurts. An attempt to overcome, even when part of her does not want to. Beautiful, wise and brutally honest book.
Quotes from The Year of Magical Thinking