Joan Didion: Grief Becomes a Part of You
Author Joan Didion talks about how losing a loved one can make a perfectly rational person feel like she is losing her mind.
BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider
What is your religious background?
I was raised an Episcopalian. And I did not and I don't believe that anyone is looking out for me personally. I do have a strong sense of an order in the universe. That order is sometimes totally indifferent to mankind. But it is still quite comforting to me in a way. I think in the book I explained that as a child I learned to find meaning in geology and I still do.
Because it gives you some sense of order?
But also a sense of randomness too, right?
Well the randomness is only personal. We perceive it as random, but there's a larger pattern somewhere.
For those who are religious, I wonder if in faith does the magical thinking for them: You're promised that you'll see your loved one again, that your bond is sacred and eternal. It fulfills that wish to remain connected.
Yes. I remember once when I was doing a piece in eastern Oregon in the early 1970s and I was checking out of a motel. The manager of the motel had just come from a funeral and he wanted to talk about it. It was an Episcopal funeral and he'd never been to an Episcopal funeral and he wanted to talk about how cold he'd found it and how it had offered no hope. He said, "If I can't believe I'm going to be on a first-name basis with all the members of my family, then what's the point of dying?"
Well, [laughs] this struck me as a very odd way of looking at it.
Because he wanted to see a "point" in dying?
Because he wanted to see a point in dying. As if he had a choice! [laughs]
It sounds like even though you were raised Episcopalian that you're very agnostic in a lot of ways.
Were you ever tempted to become more religious?
No, because if I had been going to find comfort in religion I would have found it before now. And I do find a certain comfort in the rituals.
What rituals in particular?
The Episcopal litany, the idea of the mass, the whole basic story. The rituals always had meaning for me. But I see them symbolically, which is not the way truly religious people see them. I mean, the mass is very beautiful to me, but I do not literally believe in transubstantiation.
Faith is what comforts many people when they're coping with grief. From what did you or do you draw your strength?
I can't even think that I've had much strength. Strength is one of those things you're supposed to have. You don't feel that you have it at the time you're going through it. You feel as if you have none. Now obviously I had some because I got through it. The fact of the matter is that most people do get through it. It is, I guess, life's great learning experience, or one of them.
Faith can also help people make sense of death, of tragedy, of things that go wrong in their lives—puts it into some larger context and meaning, which can be very reassuring.
That is a way of looking at it to be envied. But it's not one that I normally share.
You write that you don't believe in the resurrection of the body. Do you believe in any continuation of the spirit?
It's one of the clichés people say to you after a death: "He lives in our memory, she lives in our memory." I mean I don't disbelieve; I just don't believe. It is an agnostic position.
Do you feel as if in some sense you still have a relationship with your husband and your daughter?
Yes, I do. I had a very strong relationship with John at the time that I was writing this book. I didn't want to finish the book because I was afraid the relationship would end at that point—but it didn't. I don't mean I thought he was in the room, but I just felt close to him.
And I had a strong sense of my daughter at the funeral this week.
Do you feel like there's something about grief that's timeless? Obviously you go on with your life, but there's a part of you that stays raw.
I think part of you doesn't want to let go of it because then you're letting go of the person.
It's always a part of you. No matter how much you reconstruct your life and make a new life, I still think that there is room for part of you to always be aware that this happened. To always have a part of you grieving. Maybe it's part of being mortal–by "mortal" I don't mean doomed to die but being a human being.
There are so many books about grief, including loads of self-help books. Why do you think your memoir has resonated with readers so powerfully?
I don't know. I think among younger readers they're reading it not so much about grief but as the story of a marriage. A number of younger women said that to me when I was traveling with it this fall. That surprised me.
They were touched by how close you were?
Yeah. It was a 40-year marriage and they were maybe starting new marriages and could not conceive of how you did 40 years. But as far as the people who are responding to the description of grief, a lot of them obviously were people who had gone through grief but had been unable to talk about it. Because really it's not culturally approved.
Do you think that by writing this book you're attempting to counter the cultural impulse to hide death, to suppress grief?
Yes. That wasn't my conscious intention, but as I went on, it became a very strong sense that I had to actually describe this phenomenon that nobody was talking about.
I think large numbers of people are becoming aware of this because the baby boomers are reaching an age when people are dying around them and they're looking at their own mortality. And suddenly it's uncharted territory to them.
Was there anything that anyone said or did for you that especially comforted you?
There's a general impulse to distract the grieving person—as if you could. But there were a few friends who allowed me to talk about it, to just bring it up in the middle of dinner or something without disapproving or trying to change the subject or not to let me talk about it. People who were easy enough with the idea of death to let it come up in the course of an evening were the most helpful.