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Emily Mohr
English 290
8 May 2012
Breaking the Tradition: Joan Didion and the Complexity of Grief
The traditional model of grief includes five stages an individual experiences after the
death of a loved one. Many believe this model to be the only method of grieving, due to its
popularity and supposed simplistic view on grief. In modern times, experts are breaking away
from convention and using newer stages to describe the true complexity of grief. Some of these
stages include numb disbelief, despair, and reorganization (Beyond the Five Stages of Grief).
Joan Didions The Year of Magical Thinking illustrates the new model of grief by exemplifying
the multifaceted reactions one endures after the death of a loved one.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kbler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, which discussed stages of
adjustment for terminally ill patients (Biography). These stages eventually came to encompass
loss, such as death, and became the foundation for understanding grief (Beyond the Five Stages
of Grief). The Kbler-Ross model, or The Five-Stages of Grief, details five unique stages that
an individual will undergo after the death of a loved one. These stages include denial, anger,
bargaining, depression, and acceptance and though these stages helped legitimize the wide
variety of emotions people feel during loss, experts claim this model is too sequential and linear
(Beyond the Five Stages of Grief). The Kbler-Ross model fails to take into consideration the
possibility of overlapping phases and the complications of relapse. Though Kbler-Ross
denied that these stages occur chronologically, many experts claim that the model contains an
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implicit linear order, which negates the multidimensional reactions that occur during grief
(Kessler; Beyond the Five Stages of Grief).
Today, many experts on bereavement have moved passed the traditional Kbler-Ross
model and have attempted to include the intricacies of grief. Dr. Colin Murray Parkes proposed a
series of four phases that a grieving individual goes through: numb disbelief, yearning for the
deceased, disorganization and despair, and reorganization (Beyond the Five Stages of Grief).
Though some phases are similar to the Kbler-Ross model, these modern phases detail a
painful adjustment period in which an individual must learn to release their attachment to the
person who died (Beyond the Five Stages of Grief). These phases are lengthy and unlike the
Kbler-Ross model, these phases often overlap. In Joan Didions text The Year of Magical
Thinking, Didions grief fails to fit neatly in the Kbler-Ross model. Instead of a linear structure,
Didion depicts a year of intense phases that are complex, fluid, and overlapping.
The first phase of this modern model consists of numb disbelief (What are the stages of
grief?). Didion experiences a common feeling of disbelief following Johns death. Didion
cannot accept the fact that her husband is dead and to help her cope, she enters a world where she
waits patiently for John to walk through the door. She is doubtful that John is truly dead. Didion
writes that Johns obituaries disturbed her because she had allowed other people to think he
was dead and that she had allowed him to be buried alive (Didion 35). At some point, Didion
realizes that she needs to give away Johns clothes and shoes, but in her state of disbelief, [she]
had resisted. [She] had no idea why (Didion 36). Didion cannot give away her husbands
clothes and shoes, given the chance that he may return. In Didions mind, her husband will
return, and he would need shoes if he was to return (Didion 37).
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Unlike the Kbler-Ross model of grieving, the denial stage, or the numb disbelief phase,
of the new model includes shock as a possible symptom of grief (What are the stages of
grief?). During shock, an individual feels numb and detached and may experience dissociation
and dissociative amnesia. He or she may also avoid thoughts, feelings, or places that provoke
memories of the loss. Those experiencing shock may also function on autopilot (Grohol).
Through syntax and narrative structure, Didion implies the possibility of shock and disbelief
early in the text. When Didion arrives at the hospital after John has suffered a heart attack,
Didion is complacent and lacks emotional responses. Didion writes, Someone told me to wait in
the reception area. I did and You can wait here, he said. I waited (Didion 14). Didion does
not question the suggestions with any emotion; she simply does as she is told. Didion, in a state
of complete disbelief, chooses to focus on anything other than her husband or his death. Didion
focuses on logic and constructive things to do, rather than her husbands death. Didion writes,
Waiting in the line seemed the constructive thing to do and I was fixated on the details
(Didion 14). Didion also chooses to write with a lack of apparent emotion in these early pages.
Didion relays a systematic account of the events that took place in the hospital, removing passion
from the story while leaving in grounded details. Didion also appears to detach herself from the
circumstances. When Didion sees her husbands doctor, she writes, Hes dead, isnt he, I
heard myself say to the doctor (Didion 15). Didion dissociates herself from the trauma while
also rejecting emotion. Her repeated use of short three word sentences, such as I said yes and
I thanked him, signify Didions inability to think on any deeper level while her repeated use of
They gave me, illustrates Didions systematic retelling and lack of emotion (Didion 15).
Didion is unable to connect sentimentally with Johns personal belongings due to the shock of
Johns death.
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Throughout the text, Didion frequently avoids anything that may remind her of John,
which is a trademark symptom of shock. In trying to avoid these thoughts and places, however,
Didion transports into what she calls a vortex effect, in which she becomes lost in her
memories. Didion writes, I saw immediately in Los Angeles that its potential for triggering this
vortex effect could be controlled only by avoiding any venue I might associate with either
Quintana or John (Didion 113). Didion even shows hyper-vigilance in trying to avoid these
memories and places. Didion plotted [her] routes, [she] remained on guard (Didion 114).
Didion consciously avoids radio stations, streets, houses, and restaurants and times each activity
of each day to establish routine and structure (Didion 116). This hyper-vigilance remains absent
in the Kbler-Ross model of grieving yet Didion clearly experiences this intricate symptom
throughout the text (Kessler).
The new model of grieving includes a phase of disorganization, which entails repeatedly
going over the events preceding the death as if to set them right (Beyond the Five Stages of
Grief). Throughout the text, Didion holds onto the fantastical notion that she could somehow
turn time back and prevent Johns death. Didion continuously thinks, what if, which plagues
her everyday life. She questions her decisions in the past, placing the responsibility of Johns
death on her shoulders, denying the possibility that Johns death was natural. After John has
died, Didion claims that she had to hold on to the belief that he had been dead those thirteen
minutes because if he had been alive she would have thought [she] should have been able to
save him (Didion 22). She also recounts a time when John had wanted to go back to New York
and she dismissed it. Didion sees an ambulance at a neighbors house and believing that the red
lights were an urgent warning, she agreed with John. Didion later questions her choice and
wonders if she could have saved John by saying no (Didion 131). She repeatedly asks herself
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had I not, indicating a vortex of fixated notions that she is to blame for Johns death (Didion
131). Didion is almost obsessed with going over past events. Didion writes, I have spent a
great deal of time tryingto reconstruct, the exact sequence of events that precededwhat
happened that night (Didion 64). Early on, Didion recounts a moment weeks before John died.
While at a restaurant, John asks Didion to write something down because he did not have his
notebook with him. After John has died, Didion looks back at this moment and deems it
significant. She fixates on the reasons why he had forgotten his notebook, why he had told her
You can use it if you want to (Didion 23). The traditional model of grieving lacks this
seemingly obsessive symptom of grief (Kessler). With this disorganization phase, Didion not
only returns to memories, but she experiences the guilt that previous models of grieving have
The modern phases of grieving often overlap, which is a feature not found in traditional
models of grieving (Beyond the Five Stages of Grief). Throughout Didions text, she
experiences disbelief, avoidance, and recollections yet the phases of her grief occur fluidly and
frequently overlap. When John has died, Didion experiences disbelief while contradictorily
experiencing the disorganization phase. Didion is experiencing shock and has not come to terms
with her husbands death, yet during this time she thinks back to the ambulances departure and
arrival to the hospital. She believes that she should have been able to save him yet the
narrative structure leads the reader to believe that she has not moved from the disbelief phase of
grieving yet (Didion 22). Didion also appears to enter the reorganization phase while still held
firmly in the disorganization phase. The reorganization phase consists of learning to accept and
adapt to the world without the person who died. Didion writes, I could straighten my house, I
could get on top of things, I could deal with my unopened mail, implying that she is ready to
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reach a point where she can live without John (Didion 143). Later on, however, Didion wonders
if she could have said anything to change what happened. She writes, If I had said it in time
would it have worked (Didion 146). Didion still ponders the possibility that she could have
changed things, yet she is at that point that she can begin to live without her husband. Didion
illustrates the fluidity of grief present in the modern model of grieving by writing of her need to
move on while discussing her ponderings.
Grief as a process is complex, much like human emotions and reactions. The traditional
model of grief, while well known, fails to take into account human convolutions. The modern
model of grief, though lesser known, is fluid and includes intricate experiences to detail grief.
Didion illustrated the existence of the less popular modern model of grief, by writing of her
intense and complicated reactions to her husbands death.
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Works Cited
Beyond The Five Stages Of Grief. Harvard Mental Health Letter 28.6 (2011): 3. Academic
Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Biography. Elisabeth Kbler-Ross Foundation. EKR Family Limited Partnership, n.d. Web. 2
May 2012.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Grohol, John M. Acute Stress Disorder. Psych Central. Psych Central, 1 June 2012. Web. 3
May 2012.
Kessler, David. The Five Stages of Grief. Grief. David Kessler, n.d. Web. 2 May 2012.
What are the stages of grief? Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters (Healthcare) Inc., n.d. Web.
30 April 2012.