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The Vortex: Time Traveling for the Casual Mourner

”Entering the past without leaving the present.”


There is a couple passages in Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” that sparked a conversation with myself about grief and how we process loss. Didion writes about her life while husband death and daughter’s worsening health the year following,

Didion’s daughter is in a coma from flu complications when her husband dies from a heart attack, she writes about the next year and her struggle to accept her new reality and her ‘magical thinking’ that transports her back to other memories where her husband is alive. We follow along to what I can only describe as an eloquently-worded journey through her inner mind as she deals with her new life.


Didion sits in the hospital where her daughter, Quintana, remains in a coma, she talks about the first time she encounters what she calls “The Vortex.” She begins to recall that Beth Israel North used to be called Doctor’s Hospital. She is able to transport herself away to another place, a place where her daughter hadn’t even been born yet and her husband hadn’t died.

”This seemed to be working. I had avoided thinking for at least two minutes about why I was at Beth Israel North”

But it wasn’t much longer until that memory turned into the next and she finds herself in another moment where Quintana was three.

“I had hit more dangerous water but there had seemed no turning back”.

In the midst of a relieving visit to the past, one that is oblivious to her situation in the present, she finds herself jerked violently back to Beth Israel North and remembers the reason she is there. Her attempts to escape her grief brought her right back to the present.

“There it was, the vortex,” (107)

We follow along with Didion’s changing mindset as she begins to revisit her memories later on and begins to experience The Vortex again, her memories still contain the sadness and loss that will always accompany her, but without the paralyzing effects that envelope her into her grief. She is now able to enter the past without leaving the present.


It isn’t often that we are given the language to explain things like ‘The Vortex’ - an issue I struggled with throughout years of dealing with my grief on my own. Western culture has erased much of the earlier forms of communal support and traditional death practices that help so much with the natural and emotional process of death. (but we could go on for days about how western culture has ruined our relationships to ourselves and each other, so we can revisit that at a later date)

My father died when I was fourteen, 6 months after we learned he had stage 4 kidney cancer.

Kidney cancer is one of the ugly ones, nothing about the process of the surgery, chemotherapy, or the complications from either allowed my him to regain some sort of dignity or even simply be himself most of the time. (I only wish we had understood the extent of the disease and allowed him to die as he would have wanted)

My memories of his sickness as well as his life became ingrained in the grief and panic I experienced for years afterwards. I never had a word for the heart-pounding dread I became stuck in regularly until now...The Vortex. My high functioning anxiety meant that my ever racing mind and impulse to mull over my problems lead me into this space on almost a daily basis for years.


One morning in March of 2010 he went outside to bring up the empty trash cans- like he would normally do. I heard a crash and ran out to see he had slipped on something or had lost his grip and fallen along with the large green bin, the chemotherapy at the time meant that the scrape on his forehead took a long time to heal. This one memory marks the steady decline of the strongest man I knew, even today the sound and feel of those bins hold strong in my mind the sadness and complete lack of control I had in watching him die.


I had associated so many things to my father’s death that I found myself avoiding certain types of music and entire places. While I was in High School I was still heavily involved in the church, teaching Sunday school classes every week for years, still I didn’t step foot in a sanctuary for three years for fear of reliving the trauma that was his funeral service.

All this fear of getting stuck in the vortex led to a constant panic of having to face and truly acknowledge that he was gone was accompanied by a constant need to remember him and keep him alive and around in my mind. There was this battle between fear of loosing the memories and fear of becoming stuck in them, I was unable for years to remember the past without getting becoming engulfed in it entirely.

I recognized this need to map out my memories related to my father and his death and somehow have them on hand. Our minds are terribly unreliable recalling devices after all, and like writing down a to-do list so I wouldn’t forget to buy groceries, I needed to display my own personal grief in some sort of physical form.


Rico Franses talks about this concept in ‘Monuments and Melancholia,’ where he talks about how our memories are tied to places, and why monuments and memorials are so crucial to our memory. “Memorials  always  exist  in  a  fraught  relation  to  fear  of  disappearance: information  stored  solely  as  memory  has  a  tenuous  existence.  Once forgotten,  it  has  disappeared  forever.  Memorials  always  articulate  this anxiety  of  forgetfulness when  recollection  has  been instituted as a moral duty.” Rico Franses, ‘Monuments and Melancholia’



Using a star chart from the day he died, and places and memories that were important to me, I mapped out pathways with markers and symbols on an 8.5” x 11” layout. It was important for me to remember that these memories and places were marked in some way other than a few pictures here and there or just my own stories.

I’ve been understanding more when it comes to making and marking memories in spaces, our lives are like a multicolored painting comprised of all our memories, spaces and places, people and languages; each stroke of the paint brush is one more memory, the color changing with each new experience, eventually more strokes covering those over time.

While The Vortex has kept me from living my life in the present, forcing me back down into my past and my problems, I can now let the regular waves of grief wash over me. I can revisit my memories and understand that he is long gone and my life has moved on. The sadness and emptiness never got better, I never felt ‘healed’ or ‘moved on’, never went through the 5 stages of grief, but now when I sit in the memories that make up my past, I can at least breathe in the present.



Some reading that helped me form today’s semi-cohesive thoughts:

Avril Maddrell and James D Sidaway’s “Deathscapes: Spaces for Death, Dying and Bereavement, a collection dedicated to the “spatial turn” in the study of death and mourning”

Marta Bladek’s “A Place None of us Know Until We Reach It: mapping grief and memory in Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking“

Edward Casey’s “Public Memory in Place and Time”.

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