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.

 

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon

“We live in a society that regards death as a defeat for medical science rather than a part of life. In a culture that allows little place for death in the public area, grief becomes a private affair, viewed as a luxury we cannot afford.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 182 pages.
Read from June 16, 2019 to June 20, 2019.

When I spotted this book off Netgalley I was interested in reading it due to its themes on grief, yet I found myself very intrigued with the information provided on mushrooms and enjoying these aspects much more than I thought I would. Woon’s journey through mushrooms is intertwined with the grief of her husband; her passion for mushrooms and the intimate details of her mourning make a unique relationship that intertwines and reads well.

“We are all amateurs at grief, although sooner or later every one of us will lose someone close to us.”

Woon discusses her grieving journey intimately and just how uncomfortable we are with death as a society despite it being a part of literally everyone’s life at one point or another. It’s so uncomfortable that many of those grieving feel utterly alone and abandoned in their mourning as no one knows what to do to provide support or relief.  In social interactions the death and memory of the person are often just avoided altogether, leaving the bereaved to heal on their own. It’s a tragedy in its own right, however, the grieved are still the ones that ultimately have to decide how to move on.

“Grief grinds slowly; it devours all the time it needs.”

This is when mushrooms became paramount in Woon’s grieving process. Woon and her husband had once discussed taking a mushroom course together before he died, something that they never got to do together. Woon found herself drawn to sign up for the class alone and quickly learned to lose herself in the world of mushrooms and the journey that comes in learning about them, picking them, and cooking with them. Woon provides some great facts on the different types of mushrooms in Norway and the mushroom culture. Did you know that not every country can agree on which mushrooms are considered toxic? The deadly ones are consistent but the what one country labels as toxic another considers harmless. The book is complete with drawn images of distinct mushrooms in Norway and even a few really yummy-sounding ways to prepare and cook mushrooms, a great addition to the book that I was not expecting.

Mushrooms are something that I have very little experience in eating and tasting having only really come to enjoy them in my adult years. I have, however, always found them interesting and have been in awe of people who are knowledgable on them. Woon discusses how people usually perceive mushrooming as a dangerous ordeal as the little knowledge that people have when it comes to wild mushrooms is only on how poisonous some can be. Woon details the education process it takes to become an expert in mushrooming and explains that errors rarely happen. The wild mushrooms gathered in Norway are inspected by certified experts before they’re allowed to be taken home. With the right knowledge and by double-checking each other’s haul, wild mushrooming is a perfectly safe hobby to have but it’s still hard to convince the general public of it.

Through mushrooms, Woon managed to crawl out of the pit that grief had put her in and slowly put together a new life without her beloved husband. Loss, as Woon explains, means so much more than just the loss of that loved one’s life, it’s the loss of the life that will never be had again. Those that are left behind after someone dies will never be the same. Their lives as they know it, or knew it, will never be the same. The unwanted task then falls the mourning to find their way again and start anew with the perceived insurmountable task of doing it without the person they lost.

This book is a comforting and validating read for anyone grieving and while the glimpse into the mushroom culture and its accompanying facts are extremely interesting, most of the information is only valid only in Norway. Even with that, Woon’s writing is highly engaging, enjoyable and interesting, even if you’re only mildly interested in mushrooms.