Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Grief

I am now most of the way through reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, her thoughtful reflection on grief written in the year after the sudden death of her husband John and the hospitalisation of her daughter. It is a very moving book, which is to be expected given the subject matter, but it also very measured and carefully written. Didion is able to capture and analyse this extremely emotional time in her life with great precision.

One of the ways in which she manages to contain her material is through many references to the science and literature of grief. She writes:
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.

And this is what she does, although she admits that the literature of grief is remarkably 'spare'. I guess many of us, myself included, have an instinctive aversion to the topic of mourning and grief lest we somehow bring it upon ourselves. Although I think of myself as a rational person, I find some of the superstition around death hard to shake.

Partly this might be the times we live in. Didion contrasts the formal and ritualised approaches to death in the past with our modern habit of refusing to acknowledge it, of assuming people will 'get over it' after a 'suitable period of time'. In the past death was omnipresent. It occurred 'up close, at home'. Now 'death largely occurs offstage'. As a society we find death distasteful and, by association, also those who are grieving.

In writing her book, Didion bares her own experience to the public, perhaps so that others might feel less alone. That she finds some solace in literature confirms what many of us readers already know, that literature can help us cope with the great difficulties of life. I think there is something comforting in that idea.


Dorothy W. said...

When Didion refers to the literature of grief as being spare, does she mean nonfiction? Because I can think of novels that are about death and grieving. But perhaps not so many nonfiction works.

jess said...

I think she does mean fiction. She mentions poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins and WH Auden, amonst other writers, who have written on grieving, but I suppose she feels that it is remarkable that it is not written about more.