The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 17 | Summary



Although everyone anticipates the possibility of losing a loved one, Didion says no one is actually prepared for the reality of grief. Before the loss, people anticipate the funeral will be difficult. Didion argues the funeral is far less difficult than the empty meaningless of life afterward. She notes how strenuously grieving people attempt to avoid self-pity. Dunne and Didion were together 24 hours a day for many years, so now she often finds herself wanting to tell him things and needing to remind herself he is no longer there to hear her. This isolation, she points out, can lead to self-pity, as there is no one else left in the relationship.

She remembers Dunne saying "when something happens to me" and suggesting she might marry again, she should stay in their apartment, and so on. Didion says he was wrong, but she was wrong, too—neither of them could accurately imagine life without the other. Didion describes how impossible it would be to marry someone else because "marriage is memory, marriage is time." In Dunne's eyes, she realizes, she was always her younger self and now she suddenly feels how old she is. Didion remembers how much she hated a book by poet Dylan Thomas's widow because she saw it as whiny and full of self-pity when she read it at age 22. Didion concludes, "Time is the school in which we learn."


When a natural disaster happens, everyone is very focused on the story. The news covers it every night. Then after a few days, other stories come up. People are tired of hearing about the same old hurricane or earthquake. But the people who lived through the disaster are still suffering. Didion doesn't use this example to express her experience of grief, but she could have. She points out how often people are confident once the funeral is over the healing process will begin. In fact, she argues, the grief is much harder after the funeral, when everyone else goes back to their normal lives and the grieving person is left alone.

She quotes French historian Philippe Ariès, who wrote extensively about attitudes toward death: "A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty." Except for five months at the start of their marriage, Didion tells the reader, she and Dunne both worked from home for their entire 40 years together. Every day, countless times, "something would come up that I needed to tell him," she writes.

Didion writes in her spare, eloquent style about what marriage means. It is not just love, she says, acknowledging you can love more than one person: "Marriage is memory, marriage is time ... also, paradoxically, the denial of time." Didion was nearly 70 years old when Dunne died. More of her life had been lived with him than without him. In a sense Didion lost part of her own life story when he died. She describes "a friend of a friend" who tried "to repeat the experience"—in other words, who remarried—and said, "She didn't know the songs." Shared history is lost when a spouse dies.

At the end of the chapter, she acknowledges how hard it is to learn these lessons before loss is experienced. Didion remembers criticizing a book by Dylan Thomas's widow because the widow was "dwelling on" her loss. Didion was 22 when she read—and dismissed—the book. Now her perspective is very different.

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