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The Dartmouth
June 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Shi: The Language of Grief

Why and when one should read “The Year of Magical Thinking.”


Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a thorough, painfully poignant exploration of grief. Didion constructs this memoir with the same clarity and precision she employed in the journalistic works that brought her to fame in the 1960s and 70s. She guides the reader through her year of “magical thinking” after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. While the tone of her narration is objective, she indicates her route through the spiritual and fantastical by means of the vortex in her memories that always leads her back to her living husband and healthy child.

Didion picks apart the concepts of grief, mourning and death without skimming over any explanations. She describes the history of funerals, how modern society perceives sorrow as something shameful and prolonged grief as a form of self-pity. She goes through the literature of grief and relays Emily Post’s etiquette advice in times of bereavement. She learns the medical terms that doctors use regarding her daughter Quintana’s condition, which worsens after her husband’s death. And throughout that year, Didion returns repeatedly to the night Dunne slumps over at dinner, a movement so sudden that Didion initially registers it as a joke. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” she writes. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” 

Didion’s perspective is certainly privileged — one can sense it from the places she’s been and the people she knows — but as much as that might estrange the reader, she doesn’t emphasize those specific details. If her closest friends happen to be celebrities, or if her memories take place in glitzy cities, Didion only mentions these facts and moments for context before focusing on the topic at hand: her personal experience with grief, and mourning, and the warning signs she wishes she had heeded before her husband’s heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003. In the book, Didion practices the anthropological version of “magical thinking” — she doesn’t deviate from her usual life routine, and she preserves her husband’s belongings (and therefore his presence) in the house. She’s unwilling to donate Dunne’s shoes, for example, because if she did then he wouldn’t be able to wear them if he returned. There is always this irrational but pervasive hope that if she performs the correct actions enough times, then Dunne’s death could be reversed. 

As Didion studies everything she can find that’s been written about grief — not just novels, poetry and rituals, but also medical papers, psych studies and etiquette handbooks — she teaches the readers what she discovers from this process. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetry, which Dunne had referenced several times after his brother had committed suicide, returns to Didion as a talisman: “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” She describes, with her trademark clinical style, how grief repeatedly and relentlessly strikes. “Grief is different. Grief has no distance,” she writes. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.’” She cites Eric Lindemann, chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1940s, who had defined the phenomenon as “‘sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath … and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.’” This is a sensation that I, when grief-stricken, have been all too familiar with, yet I was still shocked to see how accurately described the emotions are on paper. 

Didion has another famous essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she details her personal writing habits. For her, keeping a notebook has always been about preserving memories, both real and invented. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether,” she declares, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” The sheer amount of documentation present in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is incredible. She and Dunne had recorded everything in writing — planners, notebooks, marginalia, kitchen books, Microsoft Word documents, a box with memorable quotes from a three-year-old Quintana. Didion combs through these records of their shared life in an attempt, almost, to resurrect Dunne through text. This gives “The Year of Magical Thinking” the intimacy of published diaries that personal essays, in their formality, seem to lack. 

“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a wonderful read, objectively, but it becomes a necessary one for those who have experienced devastating loss themselves. Didion voices precisely what it feels like to lose what was once most important to the reader. When I suffered a great deal of personal loss, I experienced the same kind of magical thinking as Didion’s. At the time I kept wondering, what do I do with my life when there’s now a giant hole made freshly in the center of it, exposing my most vulnerable self to the rest of the world? How do I navigate the incident just before the loss occurred; how do I stop myself from returning to it over and over again? Didion didn't give me answers, but she gave me her rapport, which turned out to be what I needed. This book gives the most to those who are in the process of grieving, offering not closure (“I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account,” Didion says) but an exploration of an experience the bereaved alone feel.