Dealing With Bereavement: Irrational Thoughts and Hope

In Joan Didion’s memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, she reports that her thoughts were often irrational. Her husband John Gregory Dunne died on December 30, but, according to her, “It was deep into the summer… before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.”

She first noticed such magical thinking the night after John died. She didn’t want anyone to stay with her that night. Later, she realized that at some level she believed that what had happened was reversible and she needed to be alone so he could come back. A few weeks later, when she was giving away his possessions, she found herself unable to give away all his shoes. She reports, “I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.” In another instance of illogic, she wanted an autopsy, but later realized the reasoning behind that desire: she hoped that, if the autopsy revealed that the problem was something simple, the doctors might be able to fix it.

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Didion didn’t reveal these thoughts and others like them to anyone, so she knew even while having them that others would think them peculiar. She mostly regarded them the same way herself, but they still affected her actions. Some of the thoughts she describes were not so much actual beliefs as suspicions hovering around the edges of consciousness–that she allowed John to die, that he abandoned her. These latter two have come up fairly often in my work with people who are grieving. I’ve noticed that believing that one is responsible for someone’s death impedes progress through the process of grieving. The person has often been told by others that they weren’t to blame, but the thought lingers. Why is it so hard to shake? Perhaps it’s a matter of the childlike magical thinking that Didion saw in herself; young children haven’t learned the limits of their powers, and thus may think that they could make something happen just by a thought. We are probably all susceptible to such magical thinking if under enough duress. When a loved one dies, magical thinking accuses us of not having wished hard enough for them to live.

Interestingly, Didion didn’t permit herself another type of thought that, in marked contrast to such self-accusations, comforts many grievers. She didn’t let herself think that we survive death. Whether it be the Christian’s bodily resurrection, popular imagination’s ghosts and spirits, or the Hindu and Buddhist concept of reincarnation, a great many of us think that there is something of us that endures past the grave. Such beliefs lead naturally to hope for some contact from the other side or for being reunited some day. Didion doesn’t seem to believe any such thing. She says she no longer believes  in “the resurrection of the body,” the phase from the Apostles Creed she was taught during her Episcopal upbringing. She doesn’t think it possible to get messages from the other side. She doesn’t believe in God. And, though she admits that on a few occasions after John’s death she asked him what to do, “these pleas for his presence served only to reinforce my awareness of the final silence that separated us.”

I recently talked with a woman who lost her husband and both parents in the past year. She comforts herself on bad days by imagining these three people “in a better place.” She or other family members have experienced what seemed to have been communications from beyond the grave, and these have been quite consoling. What would she be like if she didn’t have such comforts? Anyone bereaved can have the sort of irrational thoughts that Didion describes–that the lost one is coming back, that death is reversible if we just do the right thing. I wonder, though, whether Didion’s rejection of any sort of afterlife made her particularly prone to such thoughts. Maybe its part of our nature to hope that grief will end in joy, that the dead will rise or we’ll be with them one day. If we deny ourselves such hope, perhaps our minds will generate hope anyway, whether what they come up with is believable or not.

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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