I purchased The Year of Magical Thinking about a year and a half after my father passed away. In fact, I bought several books that dealt with the topic of grief thinking that I would read them in order to help me understand the rather strange state of being I entered after this loss. I began reading the book and within about ten pages I "wandered" away from it. I say that I "wandered" away from it because I didn't really make a conscious decision not to read it. I just put it down and didn't pick it up again. That was in 2006.
I came across this abandoned book while moving things around over the weekend and decided to make another attempt. After reading the first few chapters, I began thinking about the sudden lack of interest I'd experienced four years ago. It had nothing to do with the book and everything to do with the mourning process I went through at the time. This process included a terrible lack of concentration and I was unable to read more than a few lines of text, at any given time, for about six months after my father died. This was disturbing for me ... someone who is seldom without a book in reach. I remember wondering if I would ever read again.
Gratefully, I was able to read again after those initial six months; but apparently I had no interest in reading about grief or loss, even though reading is generally my preferred method of learning. Like Didion I "go to the literature" in "time of trouble." This is what I do. It was disconcerting to realize that this time I wasn't going to learn or gain any significant understanding about something or even obtain any comfort by going to the literature. Instead, I was going to learn from the experience itself. This was going to require "up close and personal" with my own thoughts instead of an "education" at a distance ... at least for awhile.
It is only after walking this path of grief and loss for a significant period of time that I've found the willingness to delve into the experiences of others who have also come this way. Joan Didion's account of what she refers to as the year of magical thinking is my first look into someone else's experience of one of the most profound encounters of human life.
I found the title of the book both attention grabbing and baffling. A year of "magical thinking"? What does that mean? Magical thinking is a psychological term that refers to an irrational way of thinking in order to cope with inevitable events and "includes such ideas as the ability of the mind to affect the physical world". An example that Didion uses is the, admittedly, crazy thought that she could not get rid of her dead husband's shoes because he would need them when he came back. She could simultaneously know that this was irrational thinking while acting on that irrational thought by keeping her husband's shoes.
I was also taken with Didion's way of structuring the book. It took me awhile to realize that the structure is similar to the experience of grief "in which you obsessively go over the same scenes again and again and again trying to make them end differently." Magical thinking indeed.
Something that I did not notice until someone pointed it out to me, was Joan's tribute to her husband John on the very cover of the book. Unless you look carefully, you will likely miss it too. The title is printed in black with four letters in the title printed in blue. Find the blue letters and you will see that they are J,O,H,N.
I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages.
"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. 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 imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we 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 meaninglessness itself." p.188 (emphases mine)