How Joan Didion Helped Me Grieve a Stranger

Birds sitting on a ledge

Like many twenty-somethings with a Bachelor of Arts and nothing else up my sleeve, I work with customers. My job at the cinema is straightforward—sell tickets, serve popcorn, make sure all the movies play on time. As a manager, I also check everyone is doing what they need to, but most of the time everything runs smoothly. This makes it even more shocking when an unthinkable event occurs.

In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, this is one of the first things Joan Didion speaks about—the startling moment when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. For Didion it was the sudden death of her husband at home in their living room. For me it was the sudden death of a guest at my workplace. In the days that followed, every time I thought or spoke about that evening, I would comment on its ordinariness. I would get caught in loops of ‘how did it happen?’ and ‘should we have known?’. I had fallen into the same trap Didion described—the ordinariness of everything that happened before meant that I couldn’t process anything in the after. My thinking was stilted. I was stuck.

By coincidence, I had started reading Didion’s book just a week before that night. I was instantly drawn into her honest prose and was regretting not reading her work earlier. Now I’m glad I didn’t find it sooner.

To be present at a death is unforgettable. That night is still seared into my memory, just as the death of a stranger was unforgettable for Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. They had been simply sitting in their car at a set of traffic lights, not expecting to witness a tragedy together. Didion paints the image of the driver slumped over the steering wheel, the immediate response of pedestrians and police. It was incomprehensible to Dunne that he knew the man was dead before his family did. I feel the same sort of incomprehension when I remember the man slumped in his chair in the cinema, the rushing of staff, the terrified faces of his children.

After what felt like days but I believe was just a few hours, a paramedic came out of the closed-off cinema. Staff were scattered around the corridor, chatting amongst themselves. We were on hand to block off the corridor and open the emergency exit once he was stabilised. The paramedic knelt beside the wife. Those words play through my head on a loop.

‘I’m so sorry, we did everything we could.’ Is that really how people speak to the freshly-bereaved? Isn’t that something people say in movies? In that moment, that woman became a single mother of two children. I stood in the corridor. No one else had heard. The only people who knew this man was dead were his wife, the family friend, the paramedics and myself. I was rattled. I stood alone. I waited for the others to realise. It was one of the longest and loneliest ten minutes of my life. I didn’t cry. I felt I needed to ‘exhibit the “strength”’ that is presented as the appropriate way to cope with death, the way Didion felt she was expected to cope.

The other staff realised in the same way a wave rolls into the shore—the slow build and then the crash onto the sand. I comforted them. I held them as they cried. I still didn’t cry. I felt I couldn’t cry in front of his wife. It didn’t seem right that this woman, who had just lost her husband and the father of her children, should look around and see me, a staff member who had never even spoken to her husband, crying. It didn’t feel like my death to grieve. But I felt it regardless. I realise now, there was no way I could’ve not mourned.

In our society death is private and personal, generally occurring offstage and unseen. It was not something I had really contemplated. I didn’t expect in my twenties to be present at someone’s passing. I had imagined I might face it later in life, farewelling an elderly loved one. They would’ve lived a long and full life and be ready to depart. We would all be with them. There would be a sense of peace. I would know it was coming. All the clichés our culture presents us with. Didion speaks to this with her parents’ deaths, how she knew of their inevitability and, though devastating, they didn’t stop the routine of her daily life. That’s what I expected. We are shown that death is something that happens to old people, sick people, not people taking their kids to the new Mission Impossible.

I had never seen a dead body. I had the option once. A friend two months to the day older than me passed away from cancer. An open-casket funeral. People lined up to see her. I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. Most days, I was glad not to have seen her, to not have transformed my last memories of her into something still, at once her and not her. In retrospect, that has changed. I wish she was the first dead body I’d seen. I wish that this confrontational image had a sense of comfort, the familiarity of my friend, not the uncomfortable differentness of this stranger. But then again, would it have been made harder by her familiarity and was made easier by the distance between me and this stranger? I’ll never know.

There are many ways in which people express their condolences to a bereaved family. The most common seem to involve food and flowers. This was the most familiar aspect of death I knew, and the representation most prevalent in our culture. Didion speaks to this, saying that growing up she was taught that you bake a ham and attend the funeral. In Something To Be Tiptoed Around, Emma Marie Jones refers to it as the ‘casserole period’, talking about how people ‘throw casserole at grief’ to cover it. Maria Tumarkin also speaks to it in Axiomatic; ‘A person dies and people ­– close, dear people and virtual strangers, some signed up to a special roster – converge on the house on the dead person’s house bearing casseroles’ (2018, p. 2). I wouldn’t make a casserole. I wouldn’t go to the funeral of the man at the cinema.

Weeks later, I still don’t know his name. I don’t know his wife’s name. I don’t know his children’s names. There was no closure to this event, no bookending with the funeral. But I did have Didion’s book. Although I didn’t know this man, and will probably never know his family, I grieved his death. Weeks on, I don’t think I’ll ever look at that cinema and not think of him.



Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. London: Fourth Estate, 2012.

Jones, Emma Marie. Something to be Tiptoed Around. Melbourne: Grattan Street Press, 2017.

Tumarkin, Maria. Axiomatic. Melbourne: Brown Books, 2018.


Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash


Jacinta is currently a member of Grattan Street Press and completing her Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. When not reading, she is eating pizza and trying to keep her succulents alive. 

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