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The Year of Magical Thinking

Didion, Joan | Knopf, 2005


p. 26 - 27

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. It was not what I felt when my parents died: my father died a few days short of his eighty-fifth birthday and my mother a month short of her ninety-first, both after some years of increasing debility. What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age), regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge, at the end, the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured. I understood the inevitability of each of their deaths . . . ” She got a letter from a priest friend, who wrote that the death of a parent: “‘despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago.’ 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 daily-ness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.'” So writes a psychiatrist in a famous study of 1944: “‘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, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.'”

pp. 46 - 47

Joan Didion lost her husband John, and began to read about bereavement. Most people are shocked into numbness. Some are so numb they look like pretty cool customers. “Dolphins . . .had been observed refusing to eat after the death of a mate. Geese had been observed reacting to such a death by flying and calling, searching until they themselves became disoriented and lost. Human beings . . . showed similar patterns of response. They searched. They stopped eating. They forgot to breathe. They grew faint from lowered oxygen, they clogged up their sinuses with unshed tears and ended up . . . with obscure ear infections. They lost concentration. ‘After a year I could read headlines,’ I was told by a friend who had lost her husband three years before. They lost cognitive abilities on all scales. . . They blundered in business and suffered sensible financial losses. They forgot their own telephone numbers and showed up at airports without picture ID. They fell sick, they failed . . . they died.”

A common end to grieving, especially in the elderly, is one’s own death from a broken heart.

p. 60

Joan Didion lost her husband John, and began to read about bereavement. Phillipe Aries, 1973, noted that previous generations knew about death and faced it frankly. But as far back as 1930 in the U.S. people started to think that the bereaved shouldn’t let their grief show so much. In 1965 Geoffrey Gorer added that people were starting to think they had “an ethical duty to enjoy themselves” and that they shouldn’t do anything that might diminish the joy of others–like mourning. He said that in Europe and the U.S. “the contemporary trend was ‘to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.'”