I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. In my case this disordered thinking had been covert, noticed I think by no one else, hidden even from me, but it had been, in retrospect, both urgent and constant.
Didion first describes magical thinking at the beginning of chapter 3, while looking back on the period immediately following John’s death. During that time, she engaged in a pattern of irrational thinking, in which she believed that her wishes had the power to change reality. She thought that, by wanting John to come back, she would actually be able to bring him back from the dead. Didion’s depiction of magical thinking supports her claim that grief is a state of temporary mental illness, during which people engage in disordered, absurd thinking. Didion makes an important distinction by emphasizing that the wishful thinking itself is not the problem, but rather her sincere belief that her thinking could alter reality. She also underscores the idea that her magical thinking had an urgent quality: it was not simply wishful daydreaming. In Didion’s mind, the purpose of her magical thinking—to bring John back from the dead—had to be achieved as soon as possible.
Didion emphasizes two key aspects of magical thinking: one, that it is hidden from view; and two, that it is constant. Didion did not tell anyone about her beliefs, nor did she even acknowledge to herself that she was engaging in a pattern of irrational thinking. Instead, the activity was buried deep within her subconscious, hidden from her conscious mind to the point that she didn’t realize the degree to which she was delusional. Additionally, magical thinking is constant. Didion didn’t engage in magical thinking occasionally, while lost in thought. Her delusional thinking represented a persistent and thus overwhelming need to correct the outcome of John’s death and Quintana’s illness. The concealed, constant nature of magical thinking likens it to mental illness in its ability to overtake the grieving person’s perception while remaining compartmentalized from her conscious thought.
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.
In chapter 4, Didion discusses how she read as much as possible about grief as a way of understanding and contextualizing her responses to John’s death. Didion examines her reactions as a writer and reporter would, conducting initial research to develop an informed perspective from which she can make critical judgments. Didion approaches her own grief from a place of intellectual inquiry, hoping that, by acquiring information, she will not only better understand her emotional experience but will also acquire the tools with which she can manage the situation. With an informed perspective, Didion believes she can avoid being passively subject to her own emotions. Instead, she will gain a measure of control and be better equipped to cope with the consequences of her husband’s death. Over the course of the book, Didion acts both as a student engaged in a process of self-education and as a detective, piecing together clues to understand the cause of John’s death in order to go back in time to change the outcome.
Didion discovers that despite the fact that grief is a common experience, very little has been written about it. Her intention had been to submerge herself in the available literature as a way of creating a network of reference points, which would allow her to frame her situation and outline available courses of action. Instead, she finds a limited body of texts that prevent her from fully understanding the range and complexity of grief experiences. By writing The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion not only contributes to the existing body of grief literature but also documents the other sources available, thereby creating a canon of grief literature. Even though the existing body of work is relatively limited, she still finds that it gives her a beginning set of ideas and definitions with which she can analyze her own experiences. The book itself, rather than the research, evolves into an intellectual project that allows her to quantify and analyze her experience.
That I was only beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now, I had only been able to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.
After Quintana’s transfer from UCLA to the Rusk Institute in chapter 12, Didion ends her period of constant crisis management and takes stock of her own process of recovery. She makes a distinction between the passive experience of grief and the active process of mourning. Grief happens naturally, and it can continue indefinitely if the grieving person doesn’t actively engage with the trauma that set off the grieving process. Mourning is an active state. It requires attention and focus to critically examine one’s emotions, take small steps toward rebuilding a daily routine, and start engaging with the outside world.
Up until this point in the book, Didion has been engaging in a grief process. Her emotions had been unpredictable and her reactions irrational, and she was vacillating between heightened vulnerability and sedated detachment. Even as she attempted to take control of the situation and get a handle on things by studying determinedly, she had remained prey to her wildly swinging emotions. Because she had been in a constant state of crisis management, she had been unable to step back to evaluate her feelings and figure out concrete ways to move forward with her life. In signaling her switch from the grief process to the mourning process, Didion takes the steps of self-evaluation that will help rebuild her life, now that her circumstances have changed so completely.
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.
As Didion begins the final chapters in The Year of Magical Thinking, she evaluates her personal experience with grief and analyzes how it has differed dramatically from her prior expectations. Didion discusses how our society has a set of expectations concerning the loss of a loved one, and how, when discussing grief, people usually focus on the period immediately following the death. As a culture, Didion claims that we focus on this period because emotions run the strongest in the immediate aftermath of great personal loss. For Didion, the weeks following John’s death had largely been a blur, in which she followed the rituals associated with death and had the comfort and support of friends and family. In the months that followed, however, she experiences the greatest tests as she starts to re-engage with her life and come to terms with how she has changed as a result of John’s death.
Didion emphasizes that grief is a highly individualized, personal experience that varies from person to person and cannot be anticipated. She says that, as much as we may try to imagine or understand what the loss of a loved one will do to us, we can never fully understand our reaction to grief until we have gone through it ourselves. As a highly rational and functional person, Didion didn’t expect that she would go through a sustained period of insanity in which she engaged in irrational and delusional lines of thinking. Grief defied all expectations and seemed to run counter to the most fundamental aspects of her personality. She concludes that grief is a uniquely transformative experience, entirely different than the normal emotional experiences of anger, sadness, and confusion we all face on a routine basis. Grief, like love, takes us to surprising places and unearths atypical reactions and responses.
I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action. That the schemes could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained, in the larger picture I had come to recognize, a matter of abiding indifference. No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.
In chapter 17, Didion discusses how, as a child, she found comfort in the idea of meaninglessness. While the consequences of natural disasters cause fear and horror in many people, for Didion they represent the planet Earth’s eternal indifference toward humanity—a concept she takes an unexpected comfort in. Tsunamis and earthquakes are an affirmation to her that the experiences of humankind are not shaped by some grand design. These natural disasters cause immense human tragedy, but they are simply geological phenomena with no “meaning” or purpose behind them. Didion finds comfort in this idea, as it emphasizes the smallness of humanity against the earth’s powerful geological activity. Didion is soothed by the idea that life is accidental, which assures her that she has autonomy in her own life and that her path is not determined by any divine plan or overarching design.
Didion’s discussion of meaninglessness reveals her atheistic worldview, in which God is seen as absent or nonexistent and which therefore stresses the importance of individual agency. Didion quotes from the classic hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which claims that God plays close attention to every living thing, even a creature as small as a sparrow. Didion rejects the idea that a divine power takes a profound interest in her choices and actions. As she sees it, the world is governed by the cycles and patterns of nature, which are indifferent to human existence. As a result, humans have an obligation to direct their own destinies and build lives that give them joy and satisfaction. Since humanity isn’t part of a larger pattern or divine scheme, quality of experience is shaped by individual choice. Didion uses this model as a way of accepting her present circumstances, recognizing that while John’s death ended a crucial component of her own life, the world was indifferent to her loss. Thinking in this way gives her perspective on her situation and also grants her an ability to direct the next steps of her life. In this way, Didion learns to follow John’s advice and “go with the changes” that have occurred in her life.