Literature in Real Life: Grief & Literature - My Year of Magical Thinking

I have debated writing this post for a while now. I had planned another post for this morning in fact until I woke up and decided to push that post to Friday. You see, tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. And I’d be lying if I wrote about anything other than that like it isn’t the only thing I’m thinking of right now. So what I’m going to write instead is a piece on the singular book that I have repeatedly turned to this past year in my grief.

If you know me personally, you know I’m a religious person. So you would think that this “singular book” would be the Bible or some other text offering the comforts of my faith. It wasn’t. I did read those things – but it just didn’t offer voice to my pain like I needed. Instead it was a book I had read offhandedly while battling postpartum depression and undiagnosed PTSD the year my first son was born; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. This memoir published in 2005 has been immensely popular ever since its release but I was totally unprepared for the waves of truth it would wash over my life. In 2011 it helped me grieve things I didn’t know I was grieving.

Literature in Real Life: Grief & Literature: My Year of Magical Thinking

When my Dad died last year it wrecked me. I was 8 months pregnant with our third son and living 2,000 miles away during his illness and only made it home for his final 40 hours. I got the call that things had taken a major turn for the worse on the drive home from our second boy, Mac’s, 3rd birthday party. The night of his birthday was a whirlwind of breakdowns, emergency flight searches and booking for very early the next morning, and packing what I would need for an unknown amount of time.

Keeping up with my daily obligations as a parent and wife every day since then has been a monumental task. For months I didn’t pick up a book because I didn’t care about anything. When I finally did, it was John Green’s Looking for Alaska – a book whose descriptions of grief brought me to ugly cry more than once. But then, I remembered The Year of Magical Thinking. And it all changed.

Finally, I had found the person who understood what was happening for myself, my saint of a mother, and my sisters. From the first page, Joan Didion got it. I call her Joan in my head because I’ve leafed through this book so many times she’s become an imaginary close friend or surrogate sister for me. She helped me in each of my stages of grief – the ones I read about those first days and still cycle through pretty regularly. She understood.

“Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant.”


Days before my Dad’s final strokes that sent everything into a last spiral, he had been in recovery from open heart surgery and another minor stroke. He was fighting. He was making progress and watching ESPN college football games with my family. He was talking by writing things out and making jokes. And then – he had two more massive strokes that no one expected and the game changed. 24 hours after the strokes he was septic. That was only hours after I had made it home to sit with him. We had to decide to let him go. Joan understood that turn from optimism to ‘Is this real life?’

“It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.”


He had been getting better. He and Mom were planning to come visit us in Colorado to meet the baby.

She writes of losing her own parents and what that grief was in comparison to her grief over her husband’s unexpected death. However, the distinction for her and for so many of the sweet people I knew trying to comfort me in life was that they lost their parents when they were older. Both they themselves as well as when their parents were older. My Dad was a brand new 64 only a couple weeks past his birthday. I was 28. My oldest sister 37, my youngest only 17. Grieving a parent when you’re our age is not the same. I wasn’t prepared. Losing a parent wasn’t part of my to-do list in my twenties. My grandfathers and the grandmother who had passed on left in their 70’s and 80’s. My parents were in their 50’s and 60’s. It’s not fair. My sisters and I had decades of time stolen from us. It made me more angry and resentful than I have ever been in my life. I hated everyone I knew who still had a dad and was going to get more time with them than I got with mine. I resented older people I knew who had lost their father but at a later point in their life than I because they still had more time. It wasn’t fair. It isn’t fair. It will probably never be fair.

“Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”


There are good days and bad days. My sons more often than not are the thing that make me smile throughout the day and have a wave of forgetting the mourning that is endlessly in the background of my mind, running all the time like some random TV show I sometimes leave going while I clean. Sometimes they’re the thing that reminds me and pushes through a new wave, but in those same moments they give me an overwhelming sense of gratitude that at least they remember him.  They’re what has kept me going all day, every day. We have things to do and being a full-time mom with a husband who travels 5 days a week doesn’t lend to time off. This year hasn’t been about moving past my grief but living in tandem with it.

“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 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. […]

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. […] We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. […]

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.”


Joan gave me the book that I needed to get through this year. Having already read it through years ago, I could flip through it in bits and pieces on the days I needed without taking the time to invest in reading its entirety. She gave me the only book I’ve found that seemed to truly understand what I was living without adding platitudes that only serve to make me angry. I know my Dad is in Heaven singing like he always did here and enjoying life without illness. I know he’s watching our family and is proud of us. But that doesn’t make my grief go away. It makes me happy for him but not for any of us who have been left behind. Maybe that will change in another year, but I doubt it. I’m selfish in my grief. For me it will always be framed within what we are not getting to experience with him. The milestones and years of experiences my sons will never have with their Granddad. I don’t think I will ever be able to think on that and not be angered. Knowing he’s not in pain now doesn’t diminish that.

“All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year,[…] I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead.”


I don’t know if everyone does this time keeping comparison but I have. Especially the last few months. Especially with the unintended help of Facebook Memories. I have lived through each day of the last 6 weeks remembering the last time we spoke the night before his surgery, the surgery day itself, the recovery updates and pictures from my sisters and my mom, and then the surge of final updates as I had to rush home and those final days. The final night where I held his hand all night long, keeping two fingers positioned on his left wrist to periodically check his pulse. Feeling when it slowed and then all of the sudden was gone in the span of a minute. There wasn’t even time to call my sisters so they could come for the end. He was there and then he was gone. Life changes in an instant.

Tomorrow after 8 am it will be a new day that my Dad didn’t see a year ago. And I’ll have to find a new way to live in tandem with my grief without comparing the days. I’ll have to change my methods.

“You had to feel the swell change.

You had to go with the change. He told me that.”