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A writer's journey through grief

Joan Didion explores the astonishing fragility of the life we think we know

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'Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," Joan Didion tells us in The Year of Magical Thinking, nominated last week as a National Book Award finalist.

Didion very unexpectedly reached that place on Dec. 30, 2003, when her husband of almost 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died just as they sat down to dinner. Were this not calamitous enough, the two had just returned from a visit to see their adult daughter, their only child, gravely ill in a nearby hospital.

A writer all her life ("Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "Democracy," "A Book of Common Prayer" among others), few are more expert than Didion at cleanly parsing thoughts and feelings. And yet, when Didion found herself launched into this strange new territory of acute loss, her own keen verbal and analytical skills failed her, as did those of others.

Nothing, she writes, can really prepare any of us for "the unending absence that follows [a loss], the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."

But Didion is a writer and so write she did. What she has produced, with remarkable clarity, is a record of her thoughts and feelings during her first year of bereavement.

It's a work that touches on surprisingly uncharted territory. When Didion tried to turn to books for help ("I had been trained since childhood ... go to the literature"), she found little solace.

There were fictional representations of grief (the widower Hermann Castorp in "The Magic Mountain") and poets (Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden) who dealt with mourning, but Didion found these too abstract. She turned to self-help literature, only to label most of it "useless."

Clinical literature, she says, was more helpful, if only because it made her feel less alone. She identified strongly with studies of animals who have lost their mates (dolphins who refuse to eat when bereaved, geese who become disoriented and cannot fly).

Didion herself went through the motions of living - and the very genuine effort of continuing to care for her daughter - but was appalled to realize how very disoriented she remained. Weeks later she couldn't throw away Dunne's shoes, because she still believed he might need them.

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