Sunday, September 25, 2005

Joan Didion Faces Death

I attended a memorial service on Sunday for a 22-year old man who died suddenly of meningitis. I didn’t know him – I am friendly with his parents -- but I still cried at the service. His friends and family gave him such loving tributes, reminding me once again of life’s fragility.

Later that day. I read an excerpt from Joan Didion’s new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a chronicle of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the dinner table, right after the couple had returned from visiting their seriously ill daughter at the hospital. (She died last month). Didion’s first chapter beautifully captures the curious nature of grief, where one minute you are overcome with profound, unwavering sadness and the next you are obsessed with practical housekeeping details, such as what you are going to wear to the service, or who will now pick up the dry cleaning.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us 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. 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," to 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.”

We live in a culture that avoids death, except on the big screen. Didion’s book could be one of those cultural catalysts that provides a forum for thinking and talking about the end we will all face.

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