Relinquishing the Dead – Hope for Widows Blog, January 2022

Author Joan Didion died in December. I’ve always enjoyed her writing, but I owe her a special debt of gratitude for her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, she described the grief and pain following the death of her husband, and the lost sense of reality that resulted from her grief. (She also refers to this state of grief as “disordered thinking,” “delusionary thinking,” and “occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally.”)

The book was written in 2007, but I didn’t discover it until the month following my own husband’s death in 2017, when I, too, was in the beginning throes of “magical thinking.” For me, it was a period of living in a fog while navigating between two realities: wanting to leave the world behind and bury myself in my memories of life with Rick, yet knowing I still had a life to live and people who cared enough to want me to stay around and see it through. I understood the “delusionary thinking,” as I listened and watched for signs of Rick everywhere. Was that him trying to reach me when the lights flickered? When the seat belt chime went off as I drove alone to our Florida vacation spot? Was he trying to contact me? Yes. I still believe he was. Magical thinking.

After hearing of Didion’s death, I was reading an article about her, and I had the opportunity to come across this quote from the book. Reading it now makes it even more apparent that Didion understood and wrote about grief as no one else could.

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table.

It’s been four years since Rick died, and I’ve learned how to relinquish the dead. I’ve relinquished most (90%?) of Rick’s things by now. I still have a pile of his “vacation” hats. He insisted on buying one on every trip we made. I kept most of his splashy button down and Hawaiian print shirts, and I have his T-shirts that were so special to him… The Elvis T-shirt, Superman, Flash, and several others that he loved to wear. It’s funny, in Didion’s book she keeps her husband’s shoes “in case he comes back” because he’ll need them. Rick’s shoes were the first thing I gave away…

Read the blog on the Hope for Widows site.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on Amazon.com.

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at www.TheWritingWidow.com.

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