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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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        An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

        Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

        Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

        The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

        Read more about his campaign.

        Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

        Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

        Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

        Read more about her campaign.

        MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

        With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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        A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

        As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

        Find out more about the campaign here.

        A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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        A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

        The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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        A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

        As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

        Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

        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.

        A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

        Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

        A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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        Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
        campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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