This is going to be a different kind of diary, because my life had ALREADY changed when I returned to a book that I had read already. The book, of course, is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, the book she wrote after the year that she walked into the dining room and found her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, dead at the dining room table. I've written about this before, most extensively in a diary for The Grieving Room about nine weeks after Jim died. In that diary, I talked about how I was reminded of the book WAY down in the comment thread of the diary I wrote at the end of the first month. In fact, it wasn't just MY life it changed, as you'll see from the comment thread below the great orange commemorative wreath.
Yes, not just my life, and I hope ReneeNY doesn't mind being dragged into this diary. The book came up in a thread in which we were discussing the physical aspects of bereavement, when she commented (in part)
I would not have associated the illness with the loss if it were not for Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking.” I highly recommend this book for anyone who is going through what you are experiencing. You are not alone and you will get through this.My response was
I LOVE that book, and thank you, because it hadn't occurred to me to reread it! Going to the library almost immediately to pick it up AND going to bookfinder.com to order my own copy.Which I of course did. And yes, it WAS just as helpful. Writing from the vantage point of a year and six weeks out, I’m not sure that the book changed me, but this is a book that worked with me as I made the changes that my new life demanded.
This is how it worked (and I'm quoting from the diary I wrote for The Grieving Room):
The writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne had been married for 40 years during which time they were apart even less than Jim and I were because they worked in the same house or apartment for all these years and they were able to bounce ideas off each other. In Didion's case, John had a massive heart attack at the dinner table, so he was there, and then he wasn't, and her life changed in an instant. To make things worse, her daughter Quintana was in and out of hospitals.It was predictive, too.
Didion found herself unmoored, with all of her ideas about life and death destabilized. The silence in her apartment was as eerie to her as the silence in mine has been [still is, at times] to me. She read all the literature, from Gawain and the Green Knight to the psychologists and psychiatrists who came after Freud and Melanie Klein. She writes that John died in December 2003 but that all she could do until May 2004 was grieve, that she had not begun the process of mourning: I did not yet have the concentration to work but I could straighten my house. I could get on top of things, I could deal with my unopened mail . . . Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.
Didion warns us:All you need to know about shock you’ll find in the first diary I wrote, between when the police left and the mortuary arrived, right after I registered for NN 13, and you’ll find all the signs of grief happening in the diaries I wrote in December and January. I had to remind myself to eat. I worried if I would be able to shop for food (that turned out not to be a problem), I worried about what I'd do when I finished what was in the freezer (my diet became much more vegetarian). I complained about ironing, and stopped buying shirts that needed to be ironed. Straightening the house? HAH! I'm STILL not organized, but then I didn't really expect that this year would find me in sole possession of an apartment we had been subletting for five years without half of the furniture I had been living with.We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative . . . 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 cannot] 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 meaning itself.
And then there was “cognitive defect.” The autopsy she requested took a year to arrive (and I was worried about the three weeks for the death certificates), because she gave the hospital the “wrong” address (it was for the apartment they lived in for the five months after they were married). This is from the book itself:
A doctor to whom I mentioned this shrugged, as if I had told him a familiar story. Either he said that such “cognitive defects” could be associated with stress or he said that such cognitive defects could be associated with grief. It was a mark of those cognitive defects that within seconds after he said it I had no idea which he had said.Yes, that happened to me too. Passwords I hadn’t used for a month? EVERYTHING had to be reset. It looks like inattentiveness, but grief apparently does something to the circuitry of the brain, and you have to remember to pay close attention to what you’re doing. I wouldn’t have understood that without this book.
But I was able to get on top of things. Teaching helped. My routine helped. Grading the AP exam helped. NN13 helped - a LOT, as did the four days I spent in San Francisco after it. My fall schedule actually helped by not letting me think about ANYTHING because I was just too damn busy. Heck, I diaried practically everything that happened to me last year while explaining how it was affecting my bereavement. I'd say you've all been party to my own year of magical thinking -- often with pictures. I’ve also begun to use the book as a touchstone – if you, the writer, say something about how it helped you or one of your friends, I, the reader, will take you even more seriously.
Finally, as you know, circumstances at Daily Kos made me the public face of grief here. I honestly don’t know if I would have been as forthcoming with my experiences as a survivor if Didion hadn’t been as forthcoming as she was. I could link a slew of diaries here, but I’ll just pick one, and if you really want to see how my life changed with the help of the book just search my diaries for “bereavement” and they should all come up.
Changed my life? Maybe. Aided and confirmed the changes I HAD to make? For sure!