Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Back in May, on her blog, Pretty in the City, Karyn mentioned "The Year of Magical Thinking," a book written by Joan Didion. I read an excerpt of the book a while ago, and checked it out of the library last week. It's not an easy read; maybe I say that because of the way my life is right now, but I daresay that anyone who has suffered a great loss will be deeply moved by the book.

In it, Didion describes - in detail - the last moments of her husband's life, and the year following, with flashbacks to their married life. They had an unusual marriage: both writers, they worked from their home in separate offices, editing one another's work, sharing most everything in their lives, including their love for their only child, a daughter, Quintana Roo. At the time of John's death, Quintana was a newly-married woman, in a coma in an intensive care unit near their home in New York City.

"Magical thinking" refers to the state of mind within her, of which Didion became aware, which was not rational, but not really insane, either. She quotes Freud, and Melanie Klein, who wrote, "The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness....To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it." Grief, an illness. It certainly feels that way, with its ups, downs, and waves of deep sadness that make normal actions, interactions and reactions seem impossible, at times.

One of the most interesting points that Didion makes is that the survivor often spends the year following the death of a loved one mentally re-viewing the last year of life they shared, day by day. She writes, "All year I have been keeping time by last year's calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner, is it the day a year ago we flew to Honolulu after Quintana's wedding, is it the day a year ago we flew back from Paris, is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead....

"I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

"I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table....Let go of them in the water. Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water."

Our future becomes the past, she says, because we have no future with the one who has died; we have only the past with them. I was stunned to read this, and oddly comforted, because that is precisely what I have been feeling. I go day by day, or week by week, looking into the past year, and thinking about what we were doing a year ago...or back to the happier days of two years ago, or more. And I need to say here that a year ago, things were going downhill, and that they only got worse as July went on. The next month and a half are going to be awful, in terms of looking back.

I don't need to hear anyone tell me, "Then don't look back." If you say that, or think it, you do not understand. What I have left of Katie is our past, and last year's events are still raw and fresh, and they need to be processed, however they arise.

I have been re-reading my journal from this time last year, and I can see the fatigue and near-desperation in my thoughts about Katie's condition, and the rest of us. We were so concerned about her mental and physical well-being. It was extremely stressful and worrying, with moments of joy and gratitude sprinkled in (when she was able to enjoy some aspect of her "old" life at home). A very tenuous recovery, very brief, -- and shattered, totally, with her last scan, and the diagnosis, which came finally on the 2oth of July. A new tumor, as large as the first, had grown in 2 months' time; it was inoperable. The doctor's advice: go home and start Hospice care.

You may find that my postings dip into the darker side, while we go through the difficult "anniversaries" of July and August, and you may read (or choose not to read) with that knowledge in mind.

On a lighter note, I have checked out another book that I am enjoying, called "The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters." The Mitford family of Great Britain was a fascinating group of individuals. They had six daughters and a son, and of those daughters, four became writers...wonderful writers, but some of their best writing was among themselves, in their personal correspondence. The sisters were poles apart politically, and included a Fascist, a Communist, a Nazi and a Duchess (by marriage). Their lives are interesting because they intersect with a great deal of the history of the 20th century; they knew many of the great writers, politicians and social figures of their day. If you find this interesting, two other good books about them are "The House of Mitford" and "The Sisters."


Susan said...

Funny timing - I was at the library this morning wanting to check that book out but it was not it. I did check out "Comfort" by Ann Hood. She lost her 5 year old daughter from a sudden illness. It is fairly short - I read it while my 2 year old napped today and shed a lot of tears, but they were "good" tears. She said a lot of things about a grieving mother's heart that resonated with me. I highly recommend it if you are in a state of mind for it.

Maggie said...

Wow Karen, your post really speaks to me today. I have spent a considerable amount of time looking back knowing what I was doing "this time last year" with the person I miss so deeply. I remember bawling on New Years Eve because I did not want to leave that year behind, the last year that knew my mother alive and move on to the next year that did not and would not contain her. I was certain everyone must experience this but since the death of a loved one is so personal and unique to each individual, I never voiced it...After the one year anniversary, it did get a little easier, but recovery from such a loss is a work in progress. I spent every saturday night since Maddie was 6 months old to when she was 3 at my moms house. Saturdays are hard.

Your journey has been long and difficult. You are so dear to so many people, we will stand beside you this next month with prayers and encouragement.

Sheri said...

I read The Year of Magical Thinking right after Joseph died. I was so admiring of her, but admit, I read it like a robot, finished it in two days and I don't think I fully "got" it. Thanks for reminding me of it. I am going to go back and read it again with a little bit of grief maturity under my belt.

I won't lie to you. The next couple of months are going to be hard. And if you are anything like me, the time immediately after her anniversary passes may become even harder. There is something about passing that first year without them that really, for me, rubbed in that he was gone, not coming back, that I had not seen my child for a full year. I feel like my real grief work began after the one year anniversary.

I am here. You are loved.

Anonymous said...

Karen, I came across your blog through another caring bridge page. I just wanted to let you know that I LOVE reading your blog. Your words are so eloquent and I feel that I really know Katie. She sure was beautiful and I adore the picture from the wedding. Your souls are touching, as they always were and always will. I'm sorry for your loss and your grief, but from your postings, it sounds like you are handling things very well. God Bless you and your family. Angel Katie is with you and watching over you everyday. Love from Indiana Pam Hochstedler

Karla W. said...

For the first assignment in the class I am taking we had to read two memoirs. The book you discussed was one among the list of choices and has been discussed in class a couple of classmates. When one of the students asked what the title of the book ment the instructor said that magical thinking is when someone believes or attempts to change the physical world by their thoughts and that applied to how the author was thinking/adjusting to the death of her husband. I have not yet read it.

One of the books I read was Anna: A Daughter's Life. It was a very hard book for me to read too. It was a journal kept by a father for the year following the death of his only child, at the age of five months. It wasn't a long book, but I found I kept needing to set it down and heal more frequently than other books.

I'm praying for you, Gregg, and David. Love Karla

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across your blog after reading different caringbridge sites...I am in my mid-twenties and live in Mississippi. I work with children who have cancer and offer supportive services to these phenomenal kids and their families. It is a blessing to have found your thoughts and words tonight. In the thirty minutes I have been reading about your life and family, my heart and soul have been touched. How amazing and full of grace you, your husband, your son, and your Katie are. I send heartfelt prayers and feelings of admiration your way. May God shower you with blessings, laughter, and fond remembrances of a truly amazing truly beautiful little girl...

Karyn said...

Karen, I'm so glad you read the book. And you have to look back and mourn. I get angry when people tell people who have lost someone to "stay strong," etc. As if tucking away those feelings and denying you have them is good for you or for anyone. They need to be processed, as you said.