When death comes unexpectedly during life's most ordinary moments shaking the core of the unprepared with its finality, it impels an instant acknowledgement of its irrevocability. There are also some who are given advance notice of their end and actually manage to document the prelude to their own death with great dignity and courage. Literature is replete with autobiographical and semi-autobiographical accounts of how people with fatal illnesses deal with their impending mortality. But they too can never actually write their final hours. The poet Pablo Neruda once presciently said: That moment of dying we let pass without a note-we leave it to others as memory, and that we neither have a trace of our first light nor of our end, however patient we may have been with the noting down of our days and hours when we were alive. However prolific we may have been as writers, note takers and recorders in our lifetime, we cannot document our actual ending. It is left to the bereaved to deal with the shock of an unexpected death and, as in the case of Joan Didion's remarkable wrestling with the swiftness of her beloved husband's demise, write a searing testament to the great grief and loss of a beloved person.

Intense and compelling

Death as a topic has been romanticised over the ages in fiction and poetry and themes of grief and loss have been constantly interwoven in literature's record of human life. One of the most definitive manuals on bereavement and grieving in recent years is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking quite possibly one of the best non-fiction books of the last decade. An intense and yet completely clinical account of first accepting her loss and then moving through strange tracts of memory and a compromised sense of rationality which Didion refers to as “magical thinking”, the book documents the year when her husband the writer John Gregory Dunne suddenly died at their dining table after they had just returned from visiting their comatose daughter Quintana in a New York hospital. “Life changes,” the book begins, “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

The book that Joan Didion went on to write after those first terrifying sentences, was she says, her “attempt to make sense...of any fixed idea...about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, 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”. This brilliant writer whose dazzling intellect has mined the core of America through a range of novels and non-fiction including A Book of Common Prayer, and Slouching towards Bethlehem, poignantly turns on herself in this extraordinary book as she struggles to cope with her beloved husband's death, (one month before their fortieth wedding anniversary) and the serious illness from pneumonia and septic shock of her only child.

Grief, says Didion, is a place that we do not know until we reach it. We often misconstrue its nature and look for a movement towards healing, imagining a linear progression, helped perhaps by the initial presence of the living around us. She writes with a wrenching irony that we cannot know ahead “of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself”. The real territory of grief it seems is masked. Everyone who has ever experienced this kind of loss will know how deceptive the sense of acceptance can be. Didion examines numerous scientific theories of grief from the medical to the psychological; impatient with some, and discarding others. She delves into literature and poetry for an understanding of her condition, like Walter Savage Landor's “Rose Aylmer” which as she recalls from her undergraduate days, moves from the hyperbolic opening about the dead Rose, What every virtue, every grace! /Rose Aylmer were all thineto the last two lines which says, A night of memories and sighs/I consecrate to thee. But then can there be a limit to mourning? More apt perhaps the lines from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins which she remembers: I wake and feel the fell of dark not day, and more from the same poem: O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed...

What if...

The power of Didion's penetrating self-analysis and her observations of the tricks that her mind plays is no antidote to the paroxysm of grief that engulfs her, the waves that catch her unawares, “the tightness in the throat. Choking...” Worse, the countless “what ifs?” that strips her of her ‘cool customer' rationality. She cannot give John's shoes away, for surely he will need them when he returns. When the body is sent for autopsy she worries that they will take out his organs, so how then will he manage without them? When the first obituaries appeared in the newspapers, she wondered how she could have allowed other people to think he was dead, “I had allowed him to be buried alive” she thinks. Another instance of her “derangement” as she clinically puts it is her thought that the autopsy would show that the cause of death had been something simple; and perhaps by resetting his pacemaker or changing the medication, “they might still be able to fix it”.

Do those who are about to die somehow know it, she wonders? In the ‘Chanson de Roland', Gawain says, I tell you, I shall not live but two days. Did John know this when she gave him a note that he had dictated a few days before he died and he gave it back to her and said, “You might want to use it”. She lives by symbols; the undeleted e-mail message, the tree that died, his voice on their answering machine, and the dictionary page that he had left open on his desk, which she closed by mistake. She also has a terrible recollection of a scene from her husband's novel, where the character Dutch Shea's daughter is killed in a bomb explosion in a London restaurant while having lunch with her mother. Dutch Shea is obsessed with the moment of his daughter's death and his grief-stricken ex-wife says “She told me she was pregnant, it was an accident, she wanted to know what to do …and I went to the ladies room because …I didn't want to cry in front of her…I heard the bomb and when I finally got out part of her was in the sherbet and part of her was in the street, and you...you want someone to remember her?” What terrain of grief had John walked on when he wrote this, she wonders?

And then, there is more devastation. Quintana dies. Didion had just finished the book when she was asked if she wanted to change her manuscript in the context of her daughter's death. Her simple answer was, no, “it is finished”. As the book ends, she knows that she must relinquish the dead. This is a book that must be read not just for the undiluted honesty of its content or for the stark plain stabbing beauty of its prose, but because in the end it is not about the dead but about those who go on living.