The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and Epilogue by Anne Roiphe were published just three years apart and address the devastating loss of the authors’ husbands. Didion expresses her purpose for writing about this period of her life:
This is my attempt to make sense of … the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck… about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself (7).
Roiphe also explains her intent in writing Epilogue: “Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life. This book is about the second. Although the division between the two parts is not a line, a wall or chasm” (4).
These books differ in their approaches, but the similarities are readily apparent, particularly in their descriptions of loss. There is a physical aspect to grieving—a literal feeling of emptiness, weight, pain, or nausea. Roiphe describes her sorrow as “a weight in my chest… a knot in my stomach, a dull pounding in my head” (25). Approaching grief as a researcher, Didion explains how humans mimic animal responses to death: “They search. They stop eating. They forget to breathe. They grow faint from lowered oxygen, they clog their sinuses with unshed tears… they lose concentration” (46-47, tense change mine). Loss also produces a sense of imbalance and an out-of-sync sensation. The world appears to move too quickly or too slowly; the one grieving is in a timeless existence that moves from present to past to future without any logic or forewarning.
In both memoirs, the authors return to narrative—both reading and writing—to tether themselves to the earth. Didion invokes Christian liturgy, poetry, and ancient epics to place her experience within the universal human experience. Roiphe says the Kaddish at her husband’s grave, despite his disbelief, and finds it comforting: “It is a prayer against despair because it is said aloud with one’s fellow humans” (71). Sadly, I found myself at a funeral while I was reading these memoirs. Our common prayers and readings were a comfort, despite the spectrum of belief and disbelief that each of us held individually. Once again, I appreciated the role language plays in “making sense,” and the particular strength found in our common stories. Roiphe and Didion have added two compelling, stark, and insightful stories to those that we use to grasp the inexplicable.