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WebMD Checkup: Joan Didion

Novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and National Book Award-winning memoirist Joan Didion answers questions about love and loss.

WebMD Magazine - Feature

Your best-selling book The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles your grief following the loss of your husband, John. What surprised you most about grieving?
I did not expect the degree of derangement-both physiological and mental. An example of the latter: Two weeks after John died, when I filled out a hospital form for the autopsy report, I gave not my own address but that of an apartment in which we had lived for the first four or five months of our marriage, in 1964.

Is there something "magical" about one year when it comes to grief?
What seems to happen at the end of a year is that the death becomes less immediate, something that happened in another year. You no longer think, "On this day a year ago we did this or that," because on this day a year ago he or she was dead. This difference is painful at first. You don't want to let the immediacy go.

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During this same year, you served as a remarkable advocate and caregiver for your gravely ill daughter, Quintana. What advice would you give to someone newly advocating for a loved one in a hospital?
All I can say about the many months when Quintana was hospitalized is that it was a full-time job-both for her husband and for me-keeping track, locating the right specialists, making sure that they were on-scene and integrated with the house staff, and (not least) making sure that she was as reassured and comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Familiar faces can make a difference, not only to the patient but to the staff.

The Internet armed you with medical information. How did it shape your advocacy?
The Internet was my first resource for information. It gave me the fuller explanations I needed to understand what the doctors were saying, it gave me the questions, it gave me the vocabulary, it gave me the range of possibilities.

What qualities do you value most in a physician?
Knowledge, skill, empathy, and affiliation with a major teaching hospital. I tend to trust doctors. If I don't, I change doctors.

You are one of America's preeminent literary voices. Are there words to describe your recent loss of Quintana?
Quintana died on August 26, 2005. Since Christmas 2003 she had been through (and survived) several life-threatening crises, most of which could be seen as sequelae of the initial septic shock. There are still no words for me to describe her loss.

What insight can you offer to someone newly grieving now?
The only advice there is for someone undergoing grief is to let it happen, to not be afraid of experiencing it. It's normal; it's part of life. We get through it, even though it doesn't seem possible.

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