Joan DidionIn her bestselling and National Book Award-winning memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," novelist and essayist Joan Didion, 71, writes about the months following the fatal heart attack of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, at their dining room table in 2003. The couple of 40 years was just home from the hospital, where they'd been visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who was extremely ill at the time. 

Less than two years later, after Didion had finished the manuscript for "Magical Thinking," her daughter also passed away. She spoke with Beliefnet recently about how grief can feel like insanity, how faith does and does not help her cope with loss, and what her friends did for her that comforted her the most. 

 Listen to Joan Didion talk about:

What do you mean by "magical thinking"?

One of the things that happens to people in grief is they secretly think they're crazy, because they realize they are thinking things that don't make sense. For example they are thinking–I don't know how many people have told me this–that their husband or wife will come back. And I don't mean come back in terms of a resurrection; I mean simply walk into the room.

I got a letter from a woman this morning who told me that she couldn't sell her husband's car because she was obsessed with the idea that he would need it when he came back.

I couldn't give away my husband's shoes. I could give away other things, but the shoes–I don't know what it was about the shoes, but a lot of people have mentioned to me that shoes took on more meaning than we generally think they do… their attachment to the ground, I don't know—but that did have a real resonance for me.

Here's another example: I realized at some point that my absolute insistence that there be an autopsy was not in any way based on the idea that I didn't know what had happened. I did know. But in some recess of my mind I had the idea—even though I've watched autopsies and know exactly what happens–I know that once an autopsy is performed even if you weren't dead before, you're dead then. At some secret level I really thought they might discover that what had gone wrong was something so minor that they could fix it on the spot.

I was really using the term "magical thinking" the way anthropologists use it. When they describe a people as thinking magically they mean something along the lines of: If we make these sacrifices the crops will thrive, for example. It's a way that primitive people and not-so-primitive people try to control the world they live in.

Although you felt as if you were crazy, you explain that the magical thinking was a way of feeling like you had some control…

It was reassuring. On one level I suppose it's necessary. On another level I also knew that I was unhinged, that I wasn't thinking straight, which—to somebody who puts a lot of importance on thinking straight—was troubling.

A lot of people have told me since the book came out that they went through this period of thinking they were crazy. Actually both Freud and Melanie Klein described grief as a derangement. But it's the only derangement that each of them noted we don't treat. Because we don't try to treat it because we expect it to resolve itself in time.

Was there some point at which you let go, and got rid of your husband's shoes?

Well here's the thing [laughs]. I haven't actually gotten rid of his shoes. But I don't have to; I mean I don't need to. I tell myself that it's not magical thinking anymore, it's that I haven't had time to do those things.

But you've let go of the idea that you can bring him back?


Do you see the magical thinking as a sort of speed bump or detour, or did it actually help you move on?

Clearly it helped me get through the period, when otherwise I would have not been able to move forward.

So it's not useful to talk about it in terms of denial, of something holding you back…

No, it's different from denial. Somehow it's a different phenomenon.

[Before his death] I'd been in a lot of denial about John's cardiac condition. I kept regarding it as something that had been fixed. One of the things that we learn as we get older is that nothing that has gone wrong with us medically in our lives is never really over, you know? [laughs] I mean the residue of it–it does something to you. In his case very specifically–he'd had open-heart surgery but damage had been done to his heart before the surgery. The surgery did was it was supposed to, but it didn't correct the damage that was already done.

People often talk about grief as this thing that evolves or progresses, as if there's some healing process…

It's so unpredictable though. In my case it was put off because our daughter was sick. And so I just shoved it over and kept myself from thinking about it because I had to focus on her. And then when it came and I sort of started working through it, I thought that it would be over. but it it comes back at odd times.

This week for the first time since my daugher died I had to go to someone else's funeral. And I had been perfectly fine and this was an expected death; it was an older person who had been very ill. But I was undone all day, and that was clearly about Quintana, not about anything else.

You wrote that there was no forward movement to your grief; it's not as if today is better than yesterday and surely tomorrow will be even better.

No, it doesn't seem to work that way.

Do you think your husband's death prepared you at all for Quintana's?

Yes, because it taught me that it would be a while. What happened to me in the year after John died was that I realized that we have very little of the control that we so prize. We can't control events; they are going to happen. In a way it allowed me to let go and not try to control things as obsessively as I had in the past. So in that sense I was better prepared for Quintana's death.

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?

Order, yeah.

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.

Probably, yes.

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.

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