Not many people know as much about grief, about bereavement as the writer Joan Didion, who lost her only child, a daughter, and her husband, within 18 months of one another. The death of a child is a particular loss. I don’t have children but I can clearly see how it is one of the hardest things someone can go through, if not the hardest. To be forced to grieve for both daughter and husband in such a short period is unthinkable.
And so today I’m just going to quote from Didion’s writing on grief. She writes about about letting go of the dead, relinquishing them. About how hard that is. Please do read on:
The photograph on the table
“We all know that if we are to live, ourselves, there comes a time we must relinquish our dead. Let them go keep them dead, let go of them in the water, let them become the photograph on the table. Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of them in the water.
I did not want the year after either of them died to end. I knew that as the 2nd year began and the days passed certain things would happen. My image of them at the moment of death would become something that happened to them in another year. My sense of John and Quintana, themselves, would become more remote, softened, transmuted into whatever best served my life without them. In fact, this is already happening.
For once in your life just let go.”
Gut-wrenching writing, isn’t it? Didion is nothing if not honest about what happens after a loved one dies, the natural order of grief and remembrance as time passes. We don’t like it, we don’t want it to happen, and yet, as she writes, it must in order for us “to live, ourselves.”
And this is the part of grief that is hardest–the guilt-inducing, survivor’s guilt that makes us feel that we should not be alive if they are not. And yet, we are. And they are not. How can we ever go on?
There are people still here who still need us–perhaps children, spouses, parents–we have obligations to our jobs and to the world to live as best as we can with this terrible loss. That’s not to say we are untouched: we are changed forever by the death of a loved one.
Didion writes movingly about moving forward–and its difficulty. I highly recommend both of her books on her grief.
If you’d like to read more, Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband’s death and Blue Nights about her grief after her daughter’s death only 18 months later. Her writing on grief is some of the most lucid, moving and deep. Which is how her writing always is; she’s been my favorite writer my entire adult life. Those are affiliate links.
And please, if you have not, see our condolence gifts at A Healing Spirit’s shop. Beautiful thoughtful and still on sale, free U.S. shipping.