Life Changes Fast–Dealing With Sudden Bereavement

“Life Changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

So starts Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. She’s alluding to her husband John’s death from a massive heart attack just as he and she were preparing to eat. She had previously experienced the loss of her parents, but this sort of loss was much 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.”

Didion’s grief takes her to the edge of sanity; at times she admits to being irrational, engaging in the sort of magical thinking that characterizes children and madmen (thus the book’s title). All the while, though, she is a careful, nearly dispassionate observer of her reactions. Her grief is uniquely hers, colored by the particular relationship she and her husband had, by the circumstances of his death, and by her sensibilities and beliefs. It is also one with how all of us grieve. Her observations about such common features of grief are particularly astute. She notes, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” How so? Well, for instance:

“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.”

Didion fell apart following her husband’s death. She’s only starting to gather herself back up a year later, when her memoir ends. Regarding the bodily changes, she notes she was cold after her husband’s death and for weeks could eat nothing except congee (that a wise friend thoughtfully provided).  As to mental dislocation, Didion concluded that much of the time she was not in her right mind: she told people the details of John’s death but didn’t remember doing so, she couldn’t concentrate, she couldn’t think about anything even tangentally related to John lest she be swept into a vortex of memories, she had nonsensical beliefs such as that, given the right circumstances, his death was reversible. As most of us would do, she tried to hide her mental fault lines from others; I appreciate her courage in revealing them to the reader.

Here’s another misunderstanding of grief that she identifies: that the griever will steadily move towards healing and wholeness. She writes:

“We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to ‘get through it,’ rise to the occasion, exhibit the ‘strength’ that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death…. We  have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.”

I’ve heard the same from others; it is not until the funeral is done, calls from well-wishers taper off, and home-cooked meals stop appearing on the doorstep that the real process of grieving begins. Some descend only briefly into the depths of grief; others, including Didion, stay in those depths so long that they wonder whether they will ever burst the surface, emerging again into ordinary life. The judgments that others are prone to make–“It’s been so long!” “She should be over it by now!”–are in this light both cruel and ignorant. The griever so wants to put the grief behind him or her, but just can’t. Not yet. Grief isn’t on the clock, ending when the time runs down.

As agonizing as grieving has been, some sufferers are reluctant for it to end. At the conclusion of the book, Didion admits she doesn’t want to stop writing and doesn’t want the year following John’s death to end. Here’s why:

“My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, john alive, will become more remote…. I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”

That is the issue that grievers eventually face–to stay with the dead or let go and have a new life. Letting go promises freedom, but when and how to do so is something that can only be decided in the heart of each griever. Didion seems ready to move on; whether or not she succeeds is unclear. Her memoir is a valuable guide to a territory that none of us want to visit, but most of us will sooner or later.

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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