Didion’s memoir quotes extensively from other books on grief and mourning, highlighting the fact that Didion sees herself as a student engaging in a process of self-education. The first step taken by any reporter working on an in-depth story is to conduct research, and Didion approaches John’s death as a puzzle she must decipher. Didion believes that, once she is equipped with the proper knowledge, she will be able to correct the problem—another manifestation of her magical thinking. Though she reads grief literature and psychological studies as a student, she has intensely emotional responses to what she reads, indicating that her intellectual objectivity is affected by her personal feelings. As much as she may want to simply absorb the knowledge available to her, she repeatedly responds as if the studies were written directly in response to her own experiences. In the end, she finds that she really wants affirmation and comfort from her readings. She finds support in unexpected sources, most notably in Emily Post’s book on etiquette, which outlines the practical steps one must take after the death of a loved one, without analysis or judgment. Didion finds that she is not ready to fully engage with the intellectual and philosophical questions of grief but needs assurance and guidance through the first stages of her own emotional response to John’s death.
As a result of her reading, Didion comes to understand the shifting status of grief in American culture and attempts to understand how cultural expectations inform her own behavior. Previously a public, ritualized condition, mourning has become a private, guilt-inducing phenomenon in today’s culture. Didion focuses on Emily Post’s book of etiquette, noting that at the time of publication, death occurred in the home and was a much more familiar part of life. Adults were supposed to respond to death maturely and capably, tending to the immediate needs of the person in mourning while respecting that person’s grieving process. Over the course of the twentieth century, death was pulled out of the home and into the hospital. As common illnesses became less prevalent because of medical advances, death was removed from the natural rhythms of home life and became a source of shame. Didion’s own anxieties about exhibiting self-pity lead her to focus on this cultural shift. She is acutely aware that she feels obligated to respond to John’s death with stoic calm. She questions this assumption, trying to determine whether her calm exterior is a genuine product of shock or an internalized set of cultural expectations. In looking to literature, she tries to ascertain what reactions are expected, which reactions are appropriate, and how her own reactions fit into those expectations.
Trained as a reader and writer, Didion uses the method of poetry analysis that she finds in John’s high school anthology as a tool for examining her responses to his death. Though simple and direct, the questions that form John’s method resonate profoundly with her own experience, as she tries to analyze the meaning and experience of each event related to his death, the thought or reflection inspired by that experience, and the emotions that are stirred up by the experience as a whole. When applied to poetry, the method asks the reader to examine the poem and its effects directly, in an attempt to understand how individual responses speak to the larger emotional experience that the poem creates. Didion realizes that she cannot analyze her responses in such a measured way, and that each decision she makes is informed by her inability to confront John’s passing. By clinging to the idea that she can somehow make John come back, Didion cannot step back and analyze her emotional responses in the truly analytical way she wants.