Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The Year of Magical Thinking has been on my reading list since it first came out at the end of 2005, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. In looking for books to read after my husband’s death last November, this one came back on my radar.
Joan Didion wrote this book in the year after her husband’s sudden death just after Christmas in 2003. They had just returned home from visiting their daughter in the hospital where she was critically ill. Joan prepare dinner while John waited in the other room reading. They came to the table. She lit candles. He asked for a second drink with dinner. She brought it to him. He was talking while she tossed their salad. Then, as she put it, “he wasn’t.”
He died on December 30th, and this began her year (or more) of “Magical Thinking.” I, and I think maybe anyone who has lost someone, know now what this magical thinking is. Joan speaks in the book of being unable to get rid of his shoes because he will need them when he comes back. She knows, logically, that he is not coming back. She knows that he has no more need of his shoes. Still, she keeps them for him.
Whenever anything happens, she thinks about how she needs to discuss it with John–including his death. She of course knows that she can’t do that, knows that he is no longer available for her to talk to about anything. But the thought occurs to her whenever something comes up, big or small.
The book is not so much about the events of the year after John’s death, although they are there. It is more about the mindset of the recently-widowed Joan.
There are numerous differences between her situation and mine. She and John were together for 45 years, my husband and I for just over a decade. They both worked from home as writers, we met at work but worked together only for a very short time. Their marriage was solid, sturdy. We were separated at the time of his death, trying to work things out but also aware that there might not be a way to do so despite the fact that we still loved each other. In fact, the only thing that really was similar between Joan’s situation and mine was the suddenness in which we both crossed the line from “married” to “widowed.”
And yet, I found myself nodding at many parts of the book, and comforted by the familiarity of what she went through. If this woman who had her life together and knew what she was doing felt this way, then maybe it wasn’t so crazy for me to feel like this too. Maybe the fact that, more than three months out, I still forget that I can’t call or text my husband to tell him some small, insignificant detail of my life or something our daughter said or did, is not completely insane.
Joan Didion was an accomplished writer long before she wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, and the writing in this book is wonderfully beautiful and nearly lyrical. If you are a fan of her writing, you will not be disappointed by this book.
But mainly, I want to recommend this book very highly to anyone who is going through a loss of their own. It is comforting to read someone else’s experience and understanding that grief isn’t something that passes quickly, if ever. It’s not something to “get over,” it’s something you live with forever. You just learn to do so and still continue living yourself.
And to anyone who is close to someone who has experienced such a loss. It goes a long way to giving you insight into the mindset of someone grieving.