I have just begun reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. A confluence of events lead me to this beautiful and insightful text beginning with the long term illness of my father-in-law’s second wife. I was already in an emotional tizzy from watching her slowly drift away into a haze of pain as her body shut down. It was so difficult for me to watch, and the fact that her demise came shortly after the anniversary of my father’s death, close to the anniversary of my mother’s passing, and the murder of nineteen innocents in Uvalde did not help my state of mind. I commented to my daughters that I do not do death well. In fact, I don’t think I have any idea how to deal effectively with sorrow. But then, who does?
As fate would have it, a friend whose son was murdered almost a year ago wrote about his journey through grief and the complex emotions he has experienced during that time. He told us about his own magical thinking and quoted Ms. Didion’s book. At that moment I sensed that I needed to read her story as well. I needed to know if the jumble of feelings that have come and gone since my father’s death were okay or the sign of a disturbance that lives on incessantly inside of me. It was as though I had found a place to feel safe with my muddled thoughts.
I became a dutiful people pleaser, a fixer of problems, on the day that my father died in spite of the reality that I was only eight years old. I approached death by doing things, attempting to take control of uncontrollable situations. My version of magical thinking was pretending that I was strong and capable. This was the face that I showed the world. Like Ms. Didion people thought of me as the “cool” presence in an emergency, but like her my rationality was little more than a reaction, a way of coping that denied the reality of what was happening.
I remember a time when my brother and I took my mother for a consult to find out why she was coughing so much, spitting up blood, having difficulty breathing. My brother has told me that when the doctor gave us his diagnosis that my mother was dying from lung cancer I was angry and yelling. I do not even remember this. Try as I may I cannot believe that I did not hear what the doctor had said, or rather, I did not accept what the doctor told us. I was angry with my mother for overacting and giving in to tears of despair. I was certain that we would be able to fix her health and I did not want her to be pessimistic. All of it was a fog in my mind that I have never been able to unravel or explain.
I learned from The Year of Magical Thinking that Joan Didion had similar experiences. Her husband’s sudden death and the events surrounding it were a blur in her mind. She had difficulty remembering the sequence of events and how she had reacted. She only remembered that the paramedics had commended her for being cool, but she did not recall being cool. In fact, she was “so determined to avoid any inappropriate responses (tears, anger, helplessness, laugher…” that she shut down all response.
When I read that line in Ms. Didion’s book I cried tears of relief because I suppose that I had trained myself to shut down in the face of tragedy or death. I did that unconsciously to protect myself from the truth, which would have been too much to accept in the moment. I had to give myself time to overcome my sorrow and my anger. In spite of my calm demeanor there has always been a core of rage in my heart that frightened me and made me feel abnormal. Through Ms. Didion’s words I saw myself over and over again. I realized that the little girl in me needed to know that I had reacted in a perfectly acceptable and typical way to my father’s death and every other death thereafter.
My mother reached a point in life where she was not longer able to attend funerals, not so much because she was physically unable, but because she was no longer able to handle the sorrow. She grieved quite openly in private. She was able to shed tears with little or no effort. She had decided that she would no longer hide her feelings to make others feel comfortable. It was a freeing experience for her that I envied because I had long ago become a stoic, someone who often confounded people with my steadiness.
I suppose that we are experiencing a kind of global grief right now. There is much anger in our hearts over the loss of millions of souls to Covid-19. We rage at the horrors of wars, not just in Ukraine but wherever such conflicts exist. We are weary of violence, crime, injustice. We worry about our future on a planet that is rapidly heating up and causing natural disasters that rent our sense of security in two. We are reacting in many different ways to the horrors that we witness, including adopting a kind of magical thinking that if we can just stay calm and hang in there it may all go away. Some run to movies, and trips and entertainment to pretend that all is well while others worry that we are doomed to a tragic future because of our unwillingness to face issues and take positive actions. Surely there is a way to quell our grief for humanity that lies somewhere in between, that allows each of us to be ourselves and love ourselves.
I am not healed from my personal losses, and may never be, but it has been good to search my heart in a rational and honest way and to forgive myself for simply being human. Sometimes I react in the voice of an awkward eight year old who continues to dwell in my brain. I have to love her and calm her and then be my present self who has learned more about life and how the world works. I have to use my grief and the anger that follows from it more wisely and thoughtfully. What I really want is to make the world better and I believe that it can be done.