WebMD Checkup: Joan Didion

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

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
4 min read

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.

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.

How are you taking care of yourself?
By sheer will, making lists and doing what I need to do and remembering that I will be useless if I get sick myself.

What kind of support system do you have?
I've been blessed by great close friends and family, people who have stepped forward without their or my asking. What is fairly useless in this kind of situation is the friend who says (and I used to be guilty of this myself), "Let me know if there's anything I can do." In fact, you won't let him or her know, ever.

You and John walked Central Park every morning. Do you still walk, and has your route changed?
I still walk in the park, yes. And yes, my route has changed, which sometimes makes me feel a little loose in the world.

What is the best health advice anyone has ever given you?
Once, a long time ago, before MRIs, when I was having some neurological symptoms and had received an exclusionary diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a friend --- a doctor, someone who had received a similar exclusionary diagnosis --- advised me to keep regular appointments with a neurologist even in the absence of symptoms. That way, he said, "You can forget about it." This worked. The symptoms subsided. I saw a neurologist regularly and never gave it a thought in between.

What is your best health habit? Your worst?
"Best" and "worst" when it comes to health habits depend on who's doing the ranking (some might say I had all bad habits), but I would say my most useful habit is to consult doctors early and fast and, as above, not fret about it in between.

Are there positive attributes to aging?
My own experience with aging was that I became a little more forgiving, both of others and myself. Once life forces you to accept that there are some things (death, illness, aging) you can't control, you tend to relax a little.

Of the five senses, which one do you value most: sight, smell, hearing, taste or touch?
I suspect that I would find loss of touch more isolating than that of any other single sense.

Is writing key to your overall health?
Writing is the only way I process experience. So yes, it's key. But I think most people would find "working" --- whatever their work is --- just as key.