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“Mourning Has Its Place But Also Its Limits” – Grieving Joan Didion

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We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.” – Joan Didion

As the wave of Covid struck the world, many lost their loved ones. Though death is inevitable, the sudden unexplained deaths of many—debilitating families depriving children of their parents, men, and women of their partners were horrifying.

Though many came out alive, they lost themselves in the chaos, dwelling in the remains of their loved ones.

 

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We know that death is destined. We visit funerals and pass by graveyards. Yet we refuse to learn how to cope with the grief that follows death, and more importantly, acknowledge its existence.

Joan Didion is a writer who rose to prominence with her cathartic wording of grief. Her works serve as an outlet for many to grieve, ponder, and give grief the rightful place in their hearts while bidding farewell and moving on with their lives.

Joan Didion:  A Pioneer In Making

Born on December 5, 1934, to Frank Reese and Eduene Didion in Sacramento, California, she describes herself as a writing enthusiast since the age of five. She writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Didion started her career as a research assistant at Vogue after winning first place in the essay contest “Prix de Paris” organised by Vogue. After that, she worked her way up to become an associate feature editor.

Joan Didion with Griffin Dunne her nephew
Joan Didion with director Griffin Dunne, her nephew who filmed her documentary, ‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.’ | Image Credits: Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, October 2017

Being a shy child, she overcame her social anxiety through acting and public speaking while finding solace in books. She was particularly a fan of Ernest Hemingway, copying out his sentences to learn the nuances behind the rhythm and structure.

“To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed… The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…The picture tells you how, to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture,” Didion remarks.

 

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Though a good writer, she was pretty dubious and never took her writing for granted. She believed that even the most insignificant details were worth noticing, as they had a meaning of their own. She is now one of the pioneers of New Journalism, exemplified in her early works, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, creative nonfiction and memoir.

She married John Gregory Dunne in 1964 and moved to Los Angeles with their adopted daughter (March 1966), Quintana Roo Dunne. The couple later went to collaborate on many works together. She wrote five novels, six screenplays, and 13 pieces of non-fiction.

On December 23, 2021, she passed away at the age of 87, leaving many lost.

The Year Of Magical Thinking By Joan Didion

Her husband, Dunne’s death in 2003 lit a newfound spark in her. Her days of glamorous writing faded, and she focused on the unspoken – grief.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive to keep them with us.”

― Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

Her book, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, narrating her grieving process after the death of her husband and her writing companion, John Gregory Dunne.

Joan Didion with her husband and daughter
Joan Didion with her husband Joh Gregory Dune and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. | Image credits: Julian Wasser, Netflix

The memoir described her raw thoughts when Dunne, her partner of 39 years, collapsed and died of a heart attack when their daughter was in the ICU with pneumonia.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it, the unending absence … the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

― Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

The book is a raw introspection into her emotions experienced at that time. The depth of her thoughts is frightening yet refreshing. Refreshing helps us take a step apart from the void we created when a loving one departs and fills the hollow with reassurance from Didion’s words.

“Grief is 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. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves.”

― Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

This is an image of the cover of the book Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Joan Didion wrote about her daughter Quintana’s death in ‘Blue Nights.’

After her father’s funeral, Quintana Roo Dunne fell at the airport, hit her head on the pavement requiring brain surgery for hematoma. On August 26, 2005, she died of acute pancreatitis, at the age of 39, during Didion’s New York promotion for ‘The Year of Magical Thinking.’

Didion later wrote about Quintana’s death in Blue Nights’ (2011).

“I tell you this true story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story.”

― Joan Didion, Blue Nights’

As an individual who by herself witnessed the deaths of her loved ones in front of her eyes, there cannot be a better person to address this emotion. She takes time to separate her grief from herself to spill it onto her works, offer a sense of comfort and hope to many, and let them know they are not alone.

The Pandemic And Didion’s Words

“Mourning has its place but also its limits.”

― Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

A week after her passing, with many words left unsaid, we still don’t know how to accept grief. With people still recovering from the effects of the second wave in India, the chaos is still on its way to the shore. But, heartbreaking as it sounds, we have to move on.

However, in today’s unsettling world, with Omicron finding its way to every corner, her works serve as a shining light in the dark times – to accept the unacceptable, to accept grief as it is.

Note: The author is part of the Dec ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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        Find out more about her campaign here.

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        A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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