February 25th, 2019

3 Things We Learned About Grief From The Year of Magical Thinking

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Just before the Christmas of 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana was admitted to the hospital for the flu. Her condition quickly worsened, leaving her in a temporary coma. Returning home from visiting her daughter, Didion and her husband John sat down to dinner, where her husband suddenly collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.

This maelstrom of tragedy marks the beginning of Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she documents the year that followed her husband’s sudden death as she wrestled with understanding her grief. The title comes from the delusions she experienced while mourning. She believed her husband was still alive, so much so that she refused to get rid of his belongings.

Everyone experiences grief differently, but Didion’s reflections are both touching and insightful. We learned some powerful lessons from Magical Thinking and share them below.

Tip: Remembering your blessings can help you get through difficult times. Challenge yourself to practice gratitude daily by starting the Practice Gratitude challenge on Fabulous. If you’re struggling with your own grief, consider speaking to a mental health professional for help and support. You are not alone.

Grief Hurts Everyone Differently

Though Didion had read up on grief, experiencing it first-hand was like nothing she could have expected. She found herself unable to reconcile with the loss of her husband. Didion constantly revisited the moments leading up to John’s death again and again, trying to figure out if she could have done something different that might have saved him. She tried to return to her everyday life but found herself surrounded by things that remind her of him. She was drowning in self-pity and unable to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

Grief can be all-consuming. It takes time to process feelings of such intense loss and everyone experiences it differently. Healing from loss takes time and compassion, and everyone has different ways of coping. Take care of yourself and do what best serves you. If you need a quick boost of support, find a dark, quiet place and listen to The Compassion Meditation in the Make Me Fabulous section of the Fabulous app.

You Can’t Control Everything

After John’s funeral, Quintana–who had only recently woken from her coma and been released from the hospital–fell while exiting the airport after her flight home and sustained a life-threatening brain injury. Didion was informed that her daughter would likely die, or remain in a vegetative state if she survived. Despite this, Didion believed she would be okay and stayed with her, trapping herself in more magical thinking.

Didion spent much of the year in which her book takes place trying to control things she simply can’t. She believed that learning more about what happened to her husband will somehow bring him back. She believed that Quintana would make a full recovery despite her grim prognosis. But none of these things come to pass. Whether she believed it or not, Didion had no control over life and death.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing in the world you can control: Yourself. Like Didion writes at the end of her book, life is a constantly-churning ocean current and we’re simply along for the ride.

The Truth Can Set You Free

It wasn’t until nearly a year later, when Didion receives and reviews John’s autopsy, that she finally begins to heal. Seeing his death laid out in black and white helped put her on the path to acceptance that he is gone. She learned that there was nothing she could have done to save him, just as there was nothing she could do to save Quintana, who would eventually pass away from her injuries. All she could do is accept what had happened and try to move forward.

Even if it’s uncomfortable or painful, you cannot avoid reality forever. When a truth is ready to be known, it can delayed, but never stopped. No amount of magical thinking could bring back Didion’s husband for her. Agonizing though it may be, he is gone, and it is only when she accepts this fact that Didion is able to begin moving on.

Acceptance isn’t always easy. But it is the first and most vital step to recovering from a loss. It’s only when you accept the reality of your situation that you can begin building a life to fit that reality. And, while magical thinking might be comforting, it only masks the pain instead of giving it space to heal. Consider the core question of Fabulous’s Your Life On Repeat meditation: If you lived your life a thousand times over, would you want to spend it hiding from your grief? Or would you rather face it, learn to cope with it, and heal?

The Takeaway

There is light at the end of the tunnel of loss. Life will never be the same after a tremendous loss–be it death, divorce, or another tragedy–but that does not have to mean your life is over, too. What served Didion most while she grieved for her husband was being able to find a new normal for her life. Being able to write and publish without her husband’s support helped her realize she could exist without her husband, even if it hurt tremendously at times. But the human spirit is remarkably resilient. With time, practice, and support, you can overcome anything.