There might be quite a few Joan Didion quotes working their way into this blog. After her husband died suddenly from heart failure (whilst their daughter was in the hospital, deathly ill) she wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking”. The title itself is one I can aspire to, as I immediately thought, how about more like, “The Year of Messed-Up Thinking”, but I will get back to the title later.
As depressing as the story sounds, (and really, I don’t only read books about death), I wanted to see what it was like for her, someone with the true gift of communication, to describe such an overwhelming experience. If anyone can sum it up, it would be a writer. And she didn’t disappoint. In fact, she described a lot of things that I have been experiencing. AND, she had research to back things up. What a relief. You took the words right out of my mouth, lady. So, I’m not crazy.
You might be asking yourself, why would one need research for such a book? Well, when you experience this kind of loss, weird stuff happens to you. Emotional (of course), but also physical and physiological. And you feel the need to try and explain it to yourself and others…because even though people might be sympathetic and empathetic, they don’t *really understand* the ways in which the body, mind, psyche get jumbled. And frankly, I had no awareness of it either until it happened to me. Didion writes,
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow. We misconstrue the nature of even those days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind…”
So true. When I say my memory is not working right anymore, I am not referring to the, “oh, that’s just a sign of getting older” kind of problem. This is completely different, and I know it is, because BEFORE my dad and husband died, I was experiencing that whole “getting older” kind of memory loss. Whereas now it’s like a complete chunk of my brain is simply not working, certain functions unaccounted for.
They say that after such a loss, some people experience symptoms similar to PTSD. I know I have experienced trauma, but I would never compare it to full blown PTSD. In fact, I saw some photos on-line recently in a series called “We are Not The Dead“. A photographer took pictures of soldiers before/during/after their time in Afghanistan. These images are so haunting to me, that I don’t even want to include one here. You can see the transformation from the stress and trauma. They look so hardened. I can’t imagine what these men endured, and what other soldiers and civilians suffer in war-torn countries, but I sure as hell can see the after effect in their eyes. It’s like looking into a dark black hole. Seeing this really frightened me.
I have thought about how my physical appearance might have changed during the past half year. And have wondered about the “look” in my eyes. I know it’s there. I don’t think it’s the same look those soldiers have. I really hope not. There are many levels of trauma, and while I know I have experienced trauma, I would assume it’s on the lower end of the scale. Didion describes the “look” like this,
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible, incorporeal. I seem to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could only be seen by those themselves recently bereaved.”
It’s a very isolating experience. And you do feel like the only people you can really relate to are the other walking wounded. It is like you are functioning in another world. The worst part is that as all the upheaval takes place, the one person – your partner – who would be able to give you an accurate reflection of yourself, who would be able to talk you off the ledge, is not there.
I don’t want my world to get sucked into a black hole. I don’t want to become the walking wounded, staring out at the world through dead eyes. But I do have to walk through this loss, and all that it brings with it. And it starts with clawing my way up from the death roll of a gator. Muddied and bloodied. There are many dark days of hopelessness. There is the void, the loss, the trauma, the regrets, the massive tangle that somehow needs to be “integrated”. Imagine the magnitude, the work ahead. I don’t see a way around it. Only through it (and as I discovered in some tips about surviving the Crocodile Death Roll, it is suggested to “hug” the beast, and roll “with” it, and, oh, try not to drown). There might be some technique required here.
And…there is the title of Joan Didion’s book. I’ve thought about it a lot. “The Year of Magical Thinking”. She could have called it “The Year of Delusional Thinking”, as she herself admitted the delusions she was having. But magical? Even if it is in reference to denial, or wishful thinking, the word gives me hope. In my heart, I believe in the magic of this life. Though I might not be able to see it clearly right now, I know there is beauty. If she can look back on her tragic year, and use the word magical, then I will continue looking, hoping – for that glimmer to shine through the muck.
My dad was an amazing person, a solid, strong guiding light, truly an eternal star in my world. My husband was rare and beautiful, a wonderful discovery that I expected to be able to hold forever. Their lives were a magical moment in mine. But oh so short, that moment. This life.
Beautiful post, so articulate, so accurate, so true. Thank you for sharing. Have you read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, his journal following the death of his wife. He describes feeling as if he was walking around with a concussion.
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Yes…I have also used the word concussion to describe how I feel. I am curious about the C.S. Lewis book, thanks for the reference.
“life changes fast, in an instant. There is a question of self-pity”…not the exact words that Didion used, but these were words I wrote on the first page of a journal I started 2 weeks after my husband died. Imagine my surprise months later when I read this book and those words were there, staring at me.
It is a remarkable book, she captures so much of the universal experience, even while writing of her own.
In the beginning books helped, blogs, on-line grief groups and then, finally a wonderful live grief group where I was with others who got it…nothing was as helpful to me as finding that group.
You are so newly on this path; I am so sorry.
It shifts, it gets different.
I kept a journal for over 2 years and then nothing for a long time. I write now from a different place in the grief journey, but I remember.
Sending support through the computer, not like real life but I know.