The Year of Magical Thinking: life changes in an instant

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant” when you least expect it to. Every day is ordinary and routine, and it is CRAZY that even though we know there is a slim chance, we assume nothing really goes wrong. In an instant, the ENTIRE world could be upside down.

Joan Didion’s collection of reflections in this book explains her coping with grief upon the loss of her husband. Her distress and messy thoughts and feelings are things I can comprehend, that I can imagine, but cannot fully feel. I’m scared. I dread this feeling of emptiness, of losing someone and the world stopping in a heartbeat, of constantly thinking about what they would do and if anything could have changed its course, if anything was preventable or my fault, or if there is any given decision that I could reverse.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

Joan Didion draws on my favourite subject matters of literature and medicine that I just like to explore and navigate in my own time. In our modern world with sufficient healthcare, death and dying almost always occurs in sanitized, well-lit hospital settings. And if I do become a healthcare professional at some point in my life, death is something I will witness, more frequently than some other people. Beyond Didion’s prose, I think now, literature is the closest thing I can come to reaching out and comprehending death (if it is even comprehensible). Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray flood my thoughts sometimes.

And Didion’s comments on all of the medical terms that just click in my mind as she explains them, that I know what bacteremia and sepsis and MRSA and the right lateral ventricle are.

It’s truly sad that people we love will leave us, sooner or later. Luck will even out. And we’ll all understand the feeling of unbearable hollowness by looking into someone’s eyes. Death happens so suddenly, so unexpectedly.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal.

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