“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it” says Joan Didion, a writer who suddenly became a widow and decided to pull no punches about the grieving process.
Shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief are the most frequent immediate responses, she tells the reader in “The Year of Magical Thinking.” The book describes the late writer’s own experience in the year following the death of her husband. The picture she paints isn’t a pretty one.
With a writing style as well-honed and sharp as a machete, she slashes away at the myth that the worst days are the earliest days. The funeral, she recalls, acts as a kind of “narcotic regression” as one is “wrapped in the care of others,” absorbed in the meaningful occasion itself.” Soon one discovers that grief is a grappling with “the unending absence of the loved one that follows.”
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. …one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness,” she recalls. She quotes Philippe Aries: “A single person is missing for you and the whole world is empty.”
It’s a time of covert “disordered thinking, both urgent and constant.” Through “the pains and furies of the grieving process,” when it looks to the world as if one is adjusting and coping, the impulse is to retreat, feeling “exposed, fragile, unstable.” And lest one count on how-to guides—some practical, some inspirational—for dealing with this condition, she quickly disabuses the reader of that notion, calling books in either category “mostly useless.”
Her book continues to appear on short-lists of best bets about the subject of grief. People in mourning find in her account of the experience all too familiar aspects of their own. She tells the truth. However, not all of the truth—I concluded, once I reached the last page. In my own time of grief, I appreciated her reassurance that it was normal to feel, in a sense, disabled. But I took issue with her blanket refusal or inability to address the metaphysical, mystical component of grief, inclined as she was instead to dub the mental state deranged.
“We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
Coming to terms with the irrevocably altered reality that occurs with the death of a beloved—the surreal-like, sudden dissolution of shared experiences, habits and rituals, intimacies and confidences—only recently as natural as breathing itself—is, I agree, crazy-making. But at a time when the veil is the thinnest, as many have attested, her advice to wholly “let them go, keep them dead… let them become the photograph on the table” does the grieving reader a disservice.
I suspect that for Didion, allowing for any kind of continuing presence would have amounted in her eyes to intellectual weakness. The irony is that this intelligent woman somehow found it possible to miss or dismiss thoughtful metaphysical works that shared space on the bestseller lists with her own*. Her intellectual curiosity extended only so far, with not even the slightest consideration of continuing consciousness beyond death, or abiding presence. Standing apart from the traditionally religious, she also gives no evidence of an incident or inkling even remotely spiritual.
I was fortunate at the time to have spent years not only learning about near-death-experiences; after-death-communications; scientific research related to continuing consciousness; past-life regressions; out-of-body abilities and the like; I’d also benefited from a number of direct personal experiences myself. Therefore, when a couple—both of them close friends—reported that on a hike in the north country shortly after my mate’s passing, a butterfly followed them the length of their hike and they felt convinced it was Peter joining them, the story cheered me.
I had enough signs myself in that first year to fill a book, extending well beyond common ones like butterflies, rainbows, coins, birds appearing at odd and/or meaningful moments. A good number were so clever and playful, as Peter was himself, that I accepted it could only be him checking in.
Deer figured prominently as signs early on—the buck and doe beyond the windows who slowly circled the house three times in a row one day; the deer that continued intently staring at me when I looked up from my writing desk one afternoon; the sighting of the silhouette of a man standing in the patch of garden Pete had tended when I looked out the window one night and stared at him for many minutes until the figure turned slightly to reveal it was a deer.
There was the string of phone-related incidents, including one when a friend and colleague of Peter’s paid me an unexpected visit, bearing a heartfelt message along with a special book. As we stood in the kitchen chatting, the rarely used land line rang, and, as on other meaningful occasions, the words PETER BENSON appeared on the screen. Listening, I heard nothing but silence, but took it as a shout-out, nonetheless.
A couple of months after Peter’s passing, an anonymous visitor came before dawn on a dozen days, leaving small gifts at my door until Christmas Eve morning when the dear friend finally revealed her identity. Unbeknownst to her, tucked under her final gift was another. Days earlier, while choosing a necklace to give to her at Christmas, her husband felt a strong prompt to buy another. He is a lawyer, logical, analytical in nature, so his acting on the impulse was out-of-character. Acknowledging this, my friend provided a note with the necklace:
Dear Tunie: Even your anonymous giver does not know of this gift. It comes from Pete, through an agent here that is unaccustomed to being used in such a way. It comes, near as I can make out, with these words from him: “You are doing well, my dear. I am proud of you. And I love you so very much. Keep the faith.”
As I stared down at the indigo stone feeling stunned and grateful, the words “blue portal” came to mind.” Specifically, the vision of a blue portal, along with a host of children coming through it, described by a masseuse once while doing body work on me. Then, an afternoon in Venice in the Guggenheim when Pete and I agreed to each choose our favorite painting.
Mine was Paul Klee’s “The Magic Garden.” His, Vasily Kandinsky’s “Landscape with Red Spots, No 2.” To our surprise, a narrator on a recording we then heard informed us that each of them had spiritual and cosmic connotations. Both alluded to another reality, next to “the real world.” In Kandinsky’s, a column rises up, extending out beyond the painting to “a higher realm.” In Klee’s, the painted blue portal I’d missed upon first exposure represents access, especially by children, to another realm, “a new universe.” The choice of that particular necklace, the sign of a continuing connection, couldn’t have been more meaningful.
A fitting companion to Didion’s existential dirge, I submit, is “Permission to Mourn” by Tom Zuba, a man who survived the losses of his wife and two of his three children. The opening meditation, titled “We Dance Between Both Worlds,” includes three lines I love:
And the dance begins.
Between both worlds.
Where all things are possible.
*Some Bestsellers About the Nonphysical/Afterlife:
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander
Dying To Be Me by Anita Moorjani
Hello From Heaven: The Twelve Types of After-Death Communication by Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenhei
Messages: Signs, Visits and Premonitions from Loved Ones Lost on 9/11
Top painting by Paul Klee: The Magic Garden
Lower painting by Vasily Kandinsky: Landscape with Red Spots, No. 2