Despite living a world in which we are daily exposed to the news and images of death, nothing can prepare us for the up-close loss of a loved one. Even where this occurs after a period of illness where in theory affairs are put in order and appropriate provisions made, the consuming void of grief is enormous, devastating, and nearly always underestimated by those caught in its maw.
The sudden death of Joan Didion’s husband, the writer and critic John Gregory Dunne, in their New York home and the devastating impact of its aftermath is forensically documented in The Year Of Magical Thinking. The facts are starkly presented without dramatic device or adornment. Married for nearly forty years and occasionally collaborating on screenplays, they lived and worked in the same apartment and had barely been separated for more than a few days in that time.
After visiting their daughter Quintana, a grown woman in her thirties who has been admitted to hospital after contracting pneumonia and septic shock, Didion describes the moment when the world she knew abruptly halted following Dunne’s massive heart attack:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
From these opening words of her book, the first words she wrote some five months after his death, Didion recounts how she was hurled from the rational world of certainty into the chaotic anguish of loss, grief, and mourning.
Her journalistic instincts to get on top of the facts and make sense of what’s happened quickly come unstuck. No amount of medical research about the heart condition that felled her husband or the chronology contained in the coroner’s report nor still yet, her poring over the weighty academic studies of loss and mourning, gain her a toehold back to the “normal” world from which she had been irrevocably dislodged.
If knowledge is normally equated with power, in the face of death its usefulness is overrated. No amount of understanding the cause and effect can change the outcome or lend “meaning” to her partner’s absence.