‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends’. John Dunn, Joan Didion’s husband, died of a heart attack, suddenly and unexpectedly. In fact, the sick one was not John but Quintana, their daughter, who had been in a coma caused by a bad pneumonia. By that that point they didn’t know if Quintana was not going to live, or to die. In the words of her doctor ‘We’re still not sure which way this is going’.
Didion was waiting for the ‘way’ in which things were going to turn for Quintana and John’s sudden passing devastated her. This book will sound too familiar for someone who has experience with grieving. This is not a scientific response to grief, this book is analytical yes, but truly and completely emotional on the description of the feelings one can face when a love one disappears forever.
First was the overthinking. How did this happen? She knew how, at least at the beginning. A heart attack. But, how really? Was this a consequence of having a weak heart for years? Was the autopsy (in which she wanted to participate herself but desisted) going to show his death in more detail? Was it because he fell on the floor? Or because the ambulance took nearly five minutes to arrive? And why? Why did he die at that specific moment when Quintana was at the hospital? Right after he was getting disappointed of his own writing? Right after he was obsessed with going to Paris?
Telling the others was the worst. It was an acceptance, coming through her mouth that John had died. She was conscious of it, but deep inside of her she was waiting for his comeback. She got rid of some of his clothes, but let his favourite shoes around, she did not organise the books he was reading at that moment, she did not allow anybody in her house, upsetting their routine, in case he came back. She believed she was burying him alive.
The anger comes after that acceptance, anger towards everything and everybody. Especially the closest, especially the well-intended people and comments. The self-pity, the feeling of solitude and abandonment, the why me? Why him? The relief when a friend of Jhon passed away, as she assumed she was going to keep him company, she was going to be able to cook for him, she was going to be with him.
The process of grieving is not during an specific period of time, or during some stages that everybody goes through. Didion understood the process of grieving, that is different from mourning: ‘Grief was passive, grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention’. And that is what she did. Despite the pain, despite that she completely stop her life to understand her situation and help her daughter heal. She did what a person like her needed to do. Think and overthink, research, and write.
This is a wonderful book full of emotions. A 100% recommended book and author