Leigh Harris MS, LPC, NCC, CCTP • Contact Leigh
“You sit down to dinner. And your life as you know it ends.”
— Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”
It may not be dinner. It may be an accident, a phone call, a medical appointment, a catastrophe. In the passage above, the writer Joan Didion is describing when her husband author John Gregory Dunne collapsed and died after suffering a massive heart attack in her book “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She writes of the year following his death engaging in “magical thinking” — how she tries to learn and understand what happened so she can fix it, so he can come back and life can go back to normal, and how she changes.
Didion’s journey brings to mind Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, grief does not follow a linear path, and I prefer to think of these as cycles, like a washing machine has, that start and stop and then start up again. The difference is that with a washing machine, the cycles end. In grief, I have learned, they keep going.
When I was in graduate school years ago studying Ross’s stages of grief, I thought that when you reached the final stage of acceptance, that meant the pain would be gone. But after losing my husband, Ted, five years ago, I’ve learned that while acceptance comes, healing is an active and ongoing process, and the pain is still
there. It’s not just something that happened in the past. The memories and reminders are there, birthdays and anniversaries, which Didion refers to as “the vortex”, but the loss is ongoing and ever present in your life. When our son graduated from college recently, his father was not there to celebrate with us. Loss continues to be a part of life.
Shakespeare wrote “Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows.” Not only have you lost the person and the life you knew, you’ve also lost who you are, your place, where you felt you belonged and the future you had planned. Shadows are always there. But shadows do not exist without sunlight. So I try to open up to the sunlight, to hold both the shadow and the sunlight together. A way that helps me experience sunlight is through a gratitude practice, in which I connect with something that I’m truly grateful for in that moment. This helps to bring warmth and light to the shadows.
Wishing you peace and healing, Leigh