The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”

– Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”


Famous investigative author Joan Didion’s memoir begins with an account of her husband’s death. It was a normal evening, aside from the fact that Joan and John’s daughter was in the ICU, quite possibly dying from sepsis brought on by pneumonia. Joan and her husband had sat down for dinner when John suddenly slumped into his food. Joan gives us a heartbreaking account of the hours, days, and months after John’s sudden passing, in which she questions her every action, wrestles with guilt and grief, and in a fashion true to her work, examines the reality of how we deal with the end of the human experience.

Joan’s “magical thinking” refers to her ability, brought on by necessity, to live in a constant fugue state of both the present and the past. In the past, John is alive. By focusing intensely on her memories, and on what she and John were doing a year ago on each day, she can keep him alive. But this kind of grief is paralyzing. After all, how can Joan be productive and clean out her husband’s shoes when he might need shoes if he comes back?

Grief is not logical. Grief is also an illness. We do not like to think of either of these things as being true. We praise those who suffer loss and yet outwardly continue as normal. We do not to feel anything that is not happiness or contentment, and we do not want to act in ways that might lessen others’ own joy and contentment. We say we are fine. We march on.

We as a society are so terrified of grief and death, so avoidant of it, that we do not know how to deal with it for ourselves or with others. We have lost the skills we once had as a society before death became something that happens off-stage, out of sight, and hopefully out of mind. Joan Didion takes her readers on a journey of rediscovery, one that is also familiar to anyone else who has allowed themselves to fully grieve and mourn.

The author does not seek to preach any lessons into us. Instead she offers a view through the window of her life into how grief affected her and changed her and allows us to extrapolate how grief affects us in similar ways.

“Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”

– Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”


  • Examines the physicality of grief, as well as the guilt and irrational thinking caused by loss
  • provides a clear and unflinching look at how one woman, and by extension, all of us, process loss


  • It goes without saying, but this is a book about grief. It will trigger your own grief.
  • Some might consider this a con, although I do not: there is no resolution.


  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,” Philippe Ariès wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death. “But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”

Recommended For:

  • those needing a companion in grief
  • those interested in the physical experience of grief
  • those interested in how society has relegated death and grieving to something that must be done in private
  • fans of Didion’s clear and unflinching writing style

Books to Read if You Loved The Year of Magical Thinking:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • As a society, we have largely relegated death to a place off-screen, not on the stage of our lives. We praise those who mourn quietly and “efficiently”. Why do you think this is?
  • What do you think of the phrase “in the midst of life we are in death”? Is it morbid? Hopeful? Would you speak these words at a funeral?
  • How is grief an illness? In what ways does it alter us physiologically and psychologically?

2 responses to “The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion”

  1. Also being a priest as the book reviewer. This is one I will read. I walk with those grieving and who mourn. Our aversion to discussing death and the process of grieving is quite injurious for those who need to talk and grieve out loud!


    1. The author mentions some fascinating books on grief and society manners from the turn of the 20th century about walking with those who mourn. I kind of want to read those!


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