Joan Didion is an author and journalist and also a widower. Her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a memoir which traces her life footsteps for one year- the year of she mourns her husband’s death from 2003 to 2004. The book starts with Joan and husband John getting ready to eat dinner at their New York apartment. However, John suffers from a heart attack and dies right away. Joan’s long and painful grief journey starts with the paramedics’ arrival. Through a series of flashbacks and reminiscing, Joan tells more about her life.
John and Joan’s adopted daughter, Quintana, is a newlywed bride married to Gerry but is undergoing medical problems which started from a simple flu. She is in a coma when her father passes away. Joan believes that John was highly stressed and saddened because of Quintana’s condition, which was one of the causes of his death, the other being his heart condition which required him to wear a pacemaker. Not satisfied about the reason, Joan decides to get an autopsy done for her husband.
Quintana wakes up months later and helps her mother make funeral arrangements. She wants to move to Malibu with Gerry and start fresh, which makes Joan happy. However, the sad news is that Quintana is in and out of hospitals because of brain damage problems throughout the year. Joan is overpowered by emotions and something that she calls the vortex effect, which is the moment her memories pull her in various directions, randomly, and breaking her down emotionally.
Magical thinking is a scheme that Joan uses to cope with her loss. It is unrealistic, childish thinking- a mental illness of sorts. An example is Joan refusing to get rid of John’s clothes because he will need them when he comes back. Throughout the story, Joan tries to get John back, staying in denial, numbness, and self-pity. She looks for hints and excuses for John’s death. Her way to cope with this state is to keep herself busy studying various subjects, like medicine, following a routine, and covering the Democratic and Republican conventions for the New York Review of Books.
After a year, Joan realizes that she has changed drastically. She wears sneakers because she is afraid to fall and have no one care for her, keeps the lights on at night, and is afraid to lose control. However, through self-evaluation, she realizes that there is a point where one must let go of the dead- the point where the memories start fading. The realization moment for her was when she read the autopsy report and realized there was nothing anyone could have done. She starts getting Christmas decorations- lights- as symbols of her moving forward.
There were many developmental challenges and themes throughout the book, specifically dealing with mental health. The major theme was grief as a mental illness in humans. Joan Didion’s first observation of grief was that it was a sudden shock, a feeling of numbness and emotions building up for the right moment in which to burst. During grief, people could not think in linear patterns- in fact, there is a lot of confusion, with the mind racing all over the place: from one memory to the next, from reality to fiction, from denial to self-loathing, and from various emotions like sadness and astonishment. There is also a high need for people to find out why a certain tragedy occurred and trying to reach to outward sources to find out reasonable excuses.
This is exactly what Joan does: she reaches out to the academic world to find plausible answers. Researching through books and other resources, such as question and answer sessions with doctors, she attempts to find ways to get out of this mental illness. As a survivor of a horrible tragedy, she tries to look back and see if anything could have been done to prevent the death. She jumps to illogical reasoning and denial, looking for invisible reasons. Learning from psychologists like Eric Lindemann and Sigmund Freud, she explores new concepts like “waves of grief” where a person has random emotional moments. She adds on these concepts, creating her own ideas like magical thinking and the vortex, where she is pulled into the familiar world of memories.
Once looking at grief as a type of manic depression, Joan starts evaluating her experiences and trying to examine warning signs that might have been there signaling her husband’s upcoming fate. She realizes that the role she plays in society as a social critic and writer is forcing her to examine everything from that point of view. She educates herself on grief and the various developmental stages people undergo through medical literature. Throughout her research, she experiences flashbacks of memories with her daughter and husband and learns how to fight the vortex effect. She fights by keeping herself restricted to routine and physical tasks like organizing magazines. Thus, she not only experiences the developmental challenge of grief but also finds a cure for it which works for her.
What was so different about Joan Didion’s grief mental state was that she was an unconventional griever. What is meant by this is that she did not display the traditional signs of grief which are to be expected by the majority of people. In fact, her social worker described her as calm and “cool.” According to the PLOS Medicine Journal, the first step to displaying grief is usually anger which Joan failed to stage (Prigerson). Her response was passive and numb- because she was of the other group which reacts silently to tragedy, probably because of her personality which involves a large part of her always wanting to have control over things.
On the other hand, Joan’s transition from grief to accepting the facts as they were was quiet traditional and actually gave her peace of mind when she was able to detect the change. She stated, “That I was only beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now, I had only been able to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention (Didion ch.12).” However, once again cutting herself away from the conventional crowd, she planned on dealing with mourning rationally which is not what most people do. In fact, Joan herself was irrational up to this point, even though her demeanor of irrationality was more acceptable by society. During the mourning stage, she had a plan and wanted to start fresh. According to the Behavioral Neurotherapy Clinic, mourning consists of four steps: accepting reality, working through the pain, adjusting to the environment without the deceased, and emotionally moving on with life (Grief and the Grieving Process). Since Joan educated herself on the subject, I believe it made it easier for her to transition through these steps.
Another interesting fact about Joan and John was that they had never lived away from each other during the forty years of marriage. I think that this attachment and closeness ultimately made it easier for Joan to move on, even though at first it would seem that it would make it more painful to forget. The reason is that Joan was able to have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction for having had the chance to share so much time with John and share every day together. This was also healthier for her since people, especially widows, who undergo attachment issues have a much harder time healing emotionally from the loss. The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing’s journal states, “Risk factors specific to complicated grief suggest that insecure attachments play a crucial role.”
The ideal audiences who should read this book and will greatly benefit from it are elderly couples, especially before they pass away. This is because they will be able to relate perfectly with Joan’s experiences of being with someone they love so dearly for so many years, knowing everything about them, and sharing every day of their lives with them. If the couples have living spouses, the book will be a means of mental preparation and friendly premonition of what is to come. It will serve as a wise tool, filled with human experiences that people can learn from and use during their time of grief. As for widows and widowers, no matter what their ages are, will cry, smile and sigh with satisfaction while reading the book’s pages. They will be able to cry where Joan cried, smile because of the memories they will swim through, and sigh with relief and a sense of motivation will set in, encouraging them to take the first step towards a fresh future.
As for younger couples, they can greatly benefit from this book as well, especially if they are newly married. The book will give them a peek at their upcoming futures and show them a glimpse of what to expect. They will be able to forget to fight so much and make an effort to spend loving time together because through Joan’s loss and journey, they will hopefully appreciate the blessings in their lives and not take their relationships for granted. A sense of thankfulness and determination will set in- determination for making the most of the lives to come.
Joan Didion had many scholarly resources which she used to further educate herself about grief as a mental illness, its various forms and its different stages. How do you think her reaction to her husband’s death or and her grief and mourning process would have been different if she did not have these resources and guides? Do you think she would follow the traditional steps of grief such as anger and retaliation?