The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Context


Stages of Grief

In 1969 Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the stages of grief. These are phases most people go through when they experience a loss. In brief the stages are as follows:

  • Denial: The grieving person goes into shock, feels numb, and may struggle to accept the reality of the loss.
  • Anger: The grieving person becomes angry with himself or herself, with the person who was lost, or with others who are perceived as perhaps not understanding the magnitude of the loss.
  • Bargaining: This stage may also include feelings of guilt. The grieving person may try to negotiate with the universe or with God: "If this person comes back, I will [be a good person, spend more time with them, etc.]."
  • Depression: As the grieving person starts to accept the loss, he or she often slips into a deep sadness and withdraws from life.
  • Acceptance: The grieving person may still feel grief, but he or she understands the loss and begins to move forward with life.

A grieving person does not necessarily go through these stages in sequential order. In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion experiences all five stages. Didion clearly identifies times when she is in denial. She acknowledges she holds Dunne and Quintana responsible, although she is aware it is unreasonable. Didion repeatedly engages in bargaining-type thought processes (hoping to "fix" Dunne's death, for example), and she describes a level of withdrawal from the world that is entirely consistent with depression. By the end of the book she is attempting to move forward, modeling acceptance.

Medical Background: John Gregory Dunne

John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion's husband, died on December 30, 2003, of a "sudden massive coronary event." He had been diagnosed with heart problems in 1987. An "angiogram showed a 90 percent occlusion of the left anterior descending artery," which his cardiologist referred to as "the widowmaker." An angiogram is an X-ray of blood vessels, such as those in the heart. Dunne had an angioplasty, a surgical procedure to unblock the artery, which was deemed a success.

According to Didion's description in The Year of Magical Thinking, Dunne felt at the time he knew how he was going to die. In some cases he made choices based on the assumption he would die soon, such as wanting to move back to New York and wanting to visit Paris one more time. After the angioplasty was successful, Didion went into denial.

In the book Didion describes how in 2003 Dunne began to need regular procedures to manage atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heartbeat. In June 2003 he was fitted with a pacemaker, a device that artificially regulates the heart's rhythm. In spite of all of this, Didion did not think he was in any great danger of dying soon. Dunne was right, though: the heart attack that killed him was in the same area of the heart (left anterior descending artery) the angioplasty had treated in 1987.

Medical Background: Quintana Roo Dunne

Quintana is Didion and Dunne's adopted daughter. Quintana marries in her late 30s, about five months before the events of The Year of Magical Thinking occur. In December 2003 Quintana is diagnosed with a bad case of flu. The flu rapidly develops into pneumonia, a serious lung infection. She also develops septic shock, a condition in which an infection becomes so severe the body begins to shut down. Quintana is hospitalized. She cannot breathe on her own and is unconscious. Didion and Dunne visit her every day in the hospital. They have just come home from visiting Quintana when Dunne has a heart attack and dies.

Quintana remains critically ill and unconscious until mid-January. She is discharged from the hospital but has to be readmitted three days later for a pulmonary embolism. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lungs, which can be fatal. Blood clots often develop when a person has been immobile, as Quintana is when she is hospitalized. The treatment is anticoagulant medication, which prevents the formation of blood clots and makes the blood flow more freely.

Quintana is very weak, but she is strong enough to participate in her father's memorial service, held on March 23, 2004. A couple of days later, Quintana and her husband travel to Southern California, but Quintana collapses at the airport. She needs brain surgery and is hospitalized for a long time in Los Angeles. Didion stays with her and eventually arranges for a medical flight to transport her back to New York so she can do her rehabilitation therapy there. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, Quintana is still very weak but is able to celebrate Christmas with Didion and the rest of the family. However, in 2005, shortly before The Year of Magical Thinking is published, Quintana dies at age 39.

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