Saturday, September 09, 2006

Imagining Grief on Life's Journey

I've been wanting to read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion for several months and had a copy practically leap into my hands from a cart of books waiting to be shelved at the library a few weeks ago. So I figured it must be the right time for me to read it. It's beautifully written yet brutally difficult to imagine living her story of the death of her husband of 40 years, author John Gregory Dunne, while also nearly losing their daughter, Quintana, to a life-threatening illness at the same time. As Didion puts it:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

While I don't intend to review the book here, there is one paragraph from Chapter 17 that so startled me with its wisdom about grief that I felt like it was a life lesson worth remembering (and a passage I'd recommend Joan Didion include in her ethical will):

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing". A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself."

As hard as the subject matter can be at times, The Year of Magical Thinking is well worth reading. Even though death seems to be most everyone's least favorite topic to read about -- much less talk about in public -- we're all headed in that direction . . . one day at a time.
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1 comment:

Stephanie West Allen said...

I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your blog and sent the link out to several people. I learmed of it in the newsletter written by Barry Baines.