“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” Joan Didion
Death is inevitable and an undeniable fact. Yet the grief that follows death can challenge facts. In her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion chronicles her first year alone after the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. She questions reality and her own sanity in the aftermath of John’s death. Embarking upon a surreal and dark journey, Joan struggles to understand the death of her beloved husband and the sudden end of their remarkable partnership.
In the days, weeks, months after my husband’s death in April (and the subsequent deaths of a college friend, a beloved 95 year old aunt, and our own Mark Ward), like Joan Didion, I also questioned reality. The order of the universe is shuffled. Life changes in an instant and the rational mind searches for an explanation…a meaning to the madness. Magical thinking becomes a survival tool. It is a way to navigate the unthinkable and is a beautiful diversion from the agony of living without the life partner who has anchored your life for so many years.
And the strange journey of grief begins. Perhaps, in this world of magical thinking, my husband of 35 years will return. Magical thoughts, though illogical, can be comforting. My husband’s shoes are left by the bed. The hair brush he owned since childhood stays by the bathroom sink along with the toothbrush. His favorite coffee cup with Thomas etched on the side waits in the kitchen cupboard. None of this makes sense but neither does his absence.
This strange journey of grief continues with magical thoughts that he’s out there somewhere. Maybe he is in the wind chimes that move without a breeze at the same time every evening. Or is he the sweet wren that appears on the deck railing every morning at 6 AM with the same lyrical song? The bedroom lamp that blinks at odd times must be a message. Surely those are signs that he is present, still lingering in this hopelessly imperfect world. But are they just desperate and magical illusions in this insane world of grief?
“Grief is the price we pay for love”, said Queen Elizabeth II after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Grief is the inevitable price for loving our partners, our families, our friends, our anchors. In this imperfect world, we love and we lose that love.
Joan Didion says that we keep the dead alive in order to keep them with us. And magical thinking temporarily makes the pain manageable. But slowly, in time, the human spirit rallies. And magic of a different sort materializes.
For me, these are brief and unexpected magical moments. Sunday’s service when the beautiful music filled my soul was a magic moment. The lit candles that created a brief moment of light in the darkness. The kind word and the smile from a congregant that fostered a sense of belonging. All magical moments.
Occasionally the tentacles of fear and sorrow that have entrapped my battered heart loosen and I take a deep breath. My soul lightens for an instant and my mind is gifted with the beautiful clarity that I have loved and have been loved.
Love is not lost. And knowing that love is not lost…that is the magical moment that gives meaning to his strange journey of grief.
Karen Dill, UU Asheville Board of Trustees