Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Joan Didion's Grief Journey in "The Year of Magical Thinking"

For those who have lost a loved one, I would highly recommend this book.  Like C.S Lewis in A Grief Observed, Joan Didion, as a writer takes pen to paper to chronicle her grief journey.  More than usual dog-ear and underlining in this book.  Thoughts and quotes below come from my journal, written a week after Josh's second year death anniversary.

Just a few short days after her husband suddenly died from a heart attack while eating dinner, she wrote:
Live changes fast.   Life changes in an instant.   You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.   The question of self-pity. 
Nine months later, she began writing this book.
It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.
Yes, this is how I feel about "it".  An ordinary Wednesday. I was working, getting ready to leave the house for a meeting.  Tim had already left.  I went to give Josh the phone and at first, saw that his bed was empty.  Strange.  Then went all through the house looking for him.  Could he have left the house?  No, we would have heard him.  When I went back into his room, I found him.  Why me?  Why by myself?  Why didn't Tim find him before leaving?  I haven't been able to think or write about this until now.

She writes about the impact of grief:
Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be...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.
The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted.
She writes about the look of the bereaved:
People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces.  I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others.  The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness.  It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist's office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes.  These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.  I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal.  I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. 
After some time has passed, she experiences fears - of being alone, getting hurt and dying.  My fears are different.  I fear the "other shoe dropping" - that something will happen to one of my other three kids.

I don't normally quote long passages in my journal or on this blog, but this one, I must:
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 mind and body.  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 worse 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," 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 the funeral itself will be an anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the core 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 meaningless of life.
Wow - what a passage.  What truth.  This is why I read.  To understand.  To illuminate.  To find words, sentences, thoughts, passages that express with such precision and uncanniness what I think and feel.  I say "yes, yes, yes" to it all.  If in church, I would shout "AMEN!"

Didion is right, the funeral is not the problem.  Our home was calm and quiet the morning of Saturday, March 21, 2009.  Seemed even more so after the three days of family, friends and kids who came to pay their respects.  It was just our immediate family at home, getting ready. We had all worked on what we were going to say.  Tyler, Lauren and Gillian read aloud what they had written.  Lauren was running around in a green cover-up for her bathing suit that could in a stretch, be mistaken for a dress.  At one point, Tyler actually thought she was wearing it to the funeral - too funny.

I wore a black dress that was bought on sale a few weeks prior, never thinking the first (and so far only) time I would wear it would be at Josh's funeral.  All arrangements had been made.  We drove to the church.  I remember it being a bright, sunny day.  The foyer was beautiful.  Flowers, photo collage, his big football photo, lots of light.  All the people.  All the kids.  Being surprised at how many came.  The service was what we wanted - a loving, uplifting tribute to a beloved young soul who impacted many.

No, the funeral is not the problem.  It is as she says - the days after, when the reality sinks in, when everyone is gone and the absence is really, deeply felt.  The loss of a child to a mother is so enormous that I am convinced, it can only be felt in stages for if I felt everything at once, I could not survive.  My heart would literally break.

It has taken over two years before I can think and write about the day I found Josh and of memories from the funeral.  I am sad but dry-eyed.  What does this mean?  The beginning of acceptance?  Of understanding?  That I've absorbed his death into my life, my being?

I had another "wow" moment towards the end of her book when she references listening to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Over the Rainbow" which was played at Josh's funeral and is part of the playlist accessible on the side of the blog.

I will close with this quote which is why I have no plans to stop writing on this blog. And why Didion did not not want to finish her book.
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
God Bless


ANZ LitLovers said...

I have noticed (via my blog's stats analysis) that you visit ANZ LitLovers from time to time, and I just wanted to say that if ever you derive any comfort or enjoyment from my book reviews and chat about Australian books, then it is worth the time I spend writing them for you alone. I admire your courage in sharing your journey and I am quite sure that it must be a great comfort to those sharing the same pain.
Best wishes
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

sarahj said...

Thank you for this post. It was really good to read.

Jim Roberts said...

I can strongly relate to the observations you have written down about the loss of Josh... our family has just passed the five year mark from the time our 26 year old son took his own life. I am heartbroken for your loss. Today I am reading Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking" for the first time. I wish strength and blessings for you and yours as you battle through the inevitable waves. They do not stop coming, but the intervals at which they wash over you do become longer over time. Thanks so much for your blog.