Grief and The Year of Magical Thinking

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.

~ From The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

I don’t like to think about death. It scares me. It’s not the mere fact of it or the inevitability. It’s the loneliness.

I remember when my grandfather died. I was 22 and had just started graduate school. My world was shaken by his absence from it and the truth was it had been a while since I’d seen him. I had been so busy with work (I was working two jobs) and the transition back to school that I just didn’t have time. So I was broken by my lack of time. I could have had more time. I ran out of it and that hurt. But I couldn’t imagine what my grandmother was going through.

I remember seeing her at the wake. We all showed up and sat around waiting to welcome the people who would come, view my grandfather’s body, share hugs and encouragement and then go about their lives. It was hard to just sit there. But I remember my grandmother doing just that—sitting there. I wondered what she was thinking. What was that first night like when she realized she would no longer have her husband to continue life with? Did she feel empty? Did she feel lonely? Did she cry?

I didn’t see her cry that entire weekend. At the wake. At the funeral. She just sat there and looked ahead. I wonder if her thoughts were much like Joan’s. I wonder if she hoped there was a way for him to return. I wonder if she thought relentlessly about his last moments, last words. I wonder if she replayed the last conversation they had over and over in her mind. I wonder if she walked through the home they built together and felt the emptiness to the point that she no longer knew how to function in that house, where to sit, where to eat. I wonder if she still, nine years later, feels alone.

There were glimpses of her grief I was aware of. Family members mentioned that soon after his death she refused to go into the bedroom where he lay in hospice care. I noticed the last few times I visited that the chair my grandfather frequently sat in to watch westerns on VHS was no longer in its spot. I don’t remember when I first realized it wasn’t there. I don’t know when it was removed or why. But it’s gone.

I remember one day around Christmas time my cousins and I decided to go visit our grandmother, spend time with her and do her nails. I don’t remember what the conversation was about, how this happened or what the exact words were. But my grandmother basically said she didn’t have a husband anymore. He left her. My heart sunk in that moment, but I had no clue how to respond or if she realized she had spoken those words aloud. I just felt sadness for the loneliness she must have felt since September 2009 and the loneliness she was feeling in that moment even as four of her grandchildren were sitting with her. I just hope that our presence gave her some comfort and that as the years have passed she has begun to remember, with joy, the good times instead of sinking in the reality of his absence.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to use could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

~ From The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion