Within a few weeks before I wrote these reflections, I had experienced the following: visiting a grieving family whose son had just taken his own life; mourning the loss of an eighteen-year-old great-nephew (a tank driver) in Iraq; lamenting the death of a neighbor’s six-year-old daughter crushed under the wheels of her school bus; attending the memorial service of an eight-and-a-half month stillborn baby girl. Each death was sudden; each will change forever the life of the respective family.
In December 2003, while their daughter was on life-support in the hospital, author Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, returned home, and as they were sitting down to dinner, he raised his hand, slumped—and never regained consciousness. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s open-eyed look at the trauma of facing the sudden death of a loved family member.
She shows how vulnerable, how fragile, we humans are when we experience shattering loss. Grief is all-consuming: “Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life” (p. 27). Grief is intensely personal: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it . . . We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind” (p. 188).
Didion’s poignant memoir is not for those expecting quick relief; but in the recognition of our common humanity, we may find a measure of comfort—and perhaps even hope.
—Paul W. Nisly is a professor of English.
Paul Nisly completed his doctoral studies at the University of Kansas in 1974 and began teaching at Messiah College in 1972. For 24 years he served as a department chair of the Language, Literature, and Fine Arts Department, which later became the Language, Literature, and Communications Department. He was the recipient of the 2005 Alumni Appreciation Award. In the midst of all these accomplishments, Nisly’s first love and deepest joy is teaching students.
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