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.