Grief, Didion tells us, is never quite what we expect. Though we know that the people close to us will die, we don’t look beyond the days or weeks immediately following their deaths. We expect to be crazy and inconsolable, but we don’t imagine that we will be “literally crazy,” as Didion terms it, believing that we have the power to bring a lost loved one back. We expect that the funeral will be the greatest test of our strength, when in fact the funeral is soothing, thanks to the comfort of others and the meaningful nature of the event. The test comes in the weeks and months following, when the mourning person must face a profound loneliness and sense of meaninglessness, and must do so alone. As a child, Didion had been fearful of the idea of meaninglessness and found comfort in geology. The shifting and changing patterns of the earth seemed inevitable and permanent, a notion Didion linked to the Episcopal saying, “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.” For Didion, the earth’s abiding indifference was a comfort. While the destruction of human life might cause personal sorrow, the world would always continue. After she married and had a child, Didion found further comfort in domestic routines, such as cooking meals and setting the table.
People dealing with grief think a great deal about self-pity, Didion asserts. Self- pity, though common, is a practice almost universally condemned by society. Didion had spent nearly all of her time with John after they married, and her frequent impulse to talk to him didn’t go away after he died. With no one to share her thoughts with, she turns into herself, and that intense self-focus leads naturally to self-pity. Though some people who have experienced loss claim to feel the presence of the deceased, Didion never does. On several occasions after John dies, she speaks to him as if he were there, but she knows that, as a writer, imagining their dialogue comes naturally to her. However, as she imagines the responses he might give to her questions, Didion realizes that, while she thought she knew all of John’s thoughts, she really only knew a fraction of them. Before his death, John frequently told her that if something happened to him she should stay in their apartment, keep her friends close, and marry again within the year. But neither John nor Didion really understood the implications of John’s command, as both were incapable of imagining life without the other. Didion says “marriage is time,” referring to the significance of their shared history. It is also, she says, “the denial of time,” because since she was twenty-nine Didion had always seen herself through John’s eyes. Now she must see herself through other people’s eyes, and it makes her feel considerably older. In death, she says, we mourn not only the loss of the loved one but also the loss of ourselves.
Didion has begun to take stock of the past year and now attempts to understand and draw a set of coherent conclusions from her experiences. She realizes that the intensity of the shock she felt at John’s death and her subsequent deranged reactions were not only caused by the suddenness of her intense loss, but also because she was jarred to realize that her expectations about grief had been so misguided. On the surface, she had been able to function without breaking down or becoming hysterical. In reality, she had temporarily been mentally ill, able to press on only because she deluded herself into thinking that she could bring John back. Didion had not only been shocked by grief, but also by her reaction to her own grief.
In dealing with John’s absence, Didion realizes how much she communicated with him on a daily basis and how all that energy has now been turned inward. This intense level of self-focus might also be called self-pity, she worries. However, this powerful self-concern is an inevitable consequence of losing someone with whom she shared such a strong, unique bond. Didion is not only coping with the loss of John, but also with the loss of their shared memory. Her sense of self had been largely founded on her relationship—not because she lacked a strong identity of her own, but because their emotional, intellectual, creative, social, domestic, and daily lives were so bound together. The loss of John forces Didion to evaluate who she is without him, a daunting task, since she has not thought of herself in that way for forty years. Didion’s general reluctance to engage in behavior she deems indulgent makes her attempt to understand herself as an individual separate from John feel like an act of “self-pity,” but it is a necessary part of the healing process.
When Didion discusses meaninglessness, she isn’t talking about an absence of meaning. Instead, she describes a way of looking at the world with a proper sense of perspective, acknowledging that personal tragedy seems insignificant when compared to massive geological shifts. Changes that can seem huge or overwhelming seem small when viewed within a broader perspective. Didion recalls how the indifference of the natural world served as a comfort to Didion as a child. This might seem like a strange concept, since many people find comfort in exactly the opposite notion: that there is, in fact, a higher consciousness that cares about our personal welfare and benevolently controls our individual lives. However, Didion’s childhood worldview still has religious overtones, as she takes comfort in the idea that the world exists on such a huge scale that she, as a single human being, could never fully comprehend it entirely. For someone who always needs to be right and who fervently believes that research can answer all questions, acknowledging that there are things in the world that cannot be fathomed or understood, even through the most diligent inquisition, is a profound shift in thinking and an important step toward ending the process of magical thinking.