A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

4/5 stars.
ebook,  334 pages.
Read from November 26, 2019 to December 4, 2019.

This is the second book I decided to read on grief, not really for myself but with the aims that I would recommend it to a loved one dealing with their own grief. This book has been touted as one of the best books on grief, specifically about spousal grief, of which I hope I never have to experience soon. The first book I picked up on spousal grief was Loon Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2019. While I didn’t read either of these books for me, they both gave me something invaluable and have helped, even if a little, with my own grief.

Joan and her husband John are experiencing a very difficult time. It’s shortly after Christmas and their only daughter Quintana has fallen deathly ill, from what at first appeared to be the common flu but later turned into septic shock. No one is certain if she is going to make it. After a long day at the hospital, the couple comes home. Joan starts a fire and begins to cook them a meal. John gets up from the couch and, just like that, in an instant, he collapses and dies from a massive coronary thrombosis.

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

Joan walks us through her all the disbelief and disillusions she has in trying to cope with the sudden and traumatic passing of her husband in a way that will be all too familiar if you are or have ever dealt with death herself. She calls it the year of magical thinking because it truly took her a year to fully comprehend that her husband was never coming back. Grief is strange and it seems that you’re only able to feel so much at a time for a while because it’s too overwhelming. You logically know that person has passed but you cling to things that don’t make sense anyway. Joan does extensive research about death and grieving to get an idea of what to expect. The information she finds is highly analytical and is an attempt to help make sense of the tragedy she has experienced. This book is not a self-help book that will explain what your feeling or the five stages of grief, but rather a personal story that validates grief along with some analytical research to back it up.

“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 their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

There were however, some aspects I didn’t connect with while reading this book. Joan and her husband were both writers, successful ones at that too, so there are a variety of specific generational and academic references that I didn’t connect with, so I ended up skimming past them. There is also usually large financial stress that often comes with the passing of a spouse that can compound grief further that either wasn’t discussed in this story or wasn’t an issue for Joan and her family. Perhaps it was a topic that didn’t suit the overall tone of this story.

I took a lot from Joan’s story and I appreciate the efforts she took to explain and detail her grief so that others in her position can feel a little less alone. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone grieving, no matter what the loss.

 

Announcement

Thank you for your understanding.

I missed a post this last Wednesday due to the death of a close and dear family member earlier this week. I am hoping that my reading and writing will resume soon and help me get through this difficult time. Thank you for your understanding.

Stiff by Mary Roach

“Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 303 pages.
Read from May 3, 2019 to May 6, 2019.

I don’t really understand how anyone could be offended in talking about dead bodies or their various uses in science, though I appreciate that it is a sensitive subject, death is a reality of life. I think it’s not that people are uncomfortable with the dead bodies themselves but of their own perceptions of death. Many people can’t fathom being a corpse or if it was their loved ones, regardless of what happens to us when we die.

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

Mary Roach personalises her experience and interest in death as she shares her own intimate experience with the passing of her own mother. Death may be an uncomfortable reality but it is an experience we all have in common. Mary Roach approaches cadavers in a very entertaining, informative and tactful manner. She observes and interviews the intricate lives of those doing the less-than-glamorous work with corpses while also exploring the strategies they use in order to cope and maintain their humanity with the surreal nature of their jobs.

Anything you ever wanted to know about how a body decays Mary details in her interviews with forensic pathologists that do studies on real corpses to help crime investigators in gruesome murder cases.  If you’ve ever wanted to know where your body goes after you donated it to the medical sciences, Mary can tell you, and it’s often not what you would expect. Mary also discusses how many of our scientific advancements are owed to the illegalities of body snatching through history.

“Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is.”

This book requires a healthy amount curiosity about death and a slightly open mind on the topic, especially if you’re not interested in how a maggot might sound eating human flesh during one of the many dynamic stages of decay. It also discusses the donation of cadavers to science and some very specific uses which many may not be comfortable with, as well as the sensitivities surrounding organ donation and its importance.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot. We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life. H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.”

Mary also discusses the feelings and respect that we give our dead regardless of what use a corpse has after death. Whatever scientific purpose a cadaver has there is something sacred in keeping our humanity and due respect in its treatment, in that a dead body, while no longer occupied, was once a person who was loved and had a life like anyone else.

I loved this book. It’s my kind of book. Weird, interesting, factual, personal, and well-written. However, I could see it not being for everyone. For those who are science-minded and comfortable discussing the gruesome details of the body, this book is definitely for you. If thinking about the specific details of an organ transplant and knowing what a still beating heart looks like in an open chest cavity makes you queasy, you might want to pass on this one.