Chapter 1 begins with four italicized lines from a Word file titled "Notes on change.doc," the first words that Didion wrote in January 2004, a few days after the death of her husband John:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity. (3)
Didion reflects upon her thought process at the time, already in the past, when she wrote those words. She brings to mind a phrase such as "the ordinary instant" (4), which she considered adding to the above lines, and thinks about why she made certain choices with her language. Her reflection takes her back to interviews she conducted with victims of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 on separate assignments as a journalist, then to the Episcopalian burial rites, to the friends who helped her after her husband's death, and then finally to the time of her husband's death, when she found herself unable to properly narrate the events that had occurred.
Didion takes a step back and informs the reader that it is October 4, 2004 at the time of her writing, that her husband John's death from a sudden massive coronary event occurred on December 30, 2003, and that her daughter Quintana at the time of John's death was in a coma from a case of the flu that became pneumonia in the Beth Israel Hospital. Didion says that she has always been a writer and that writing has been the organizing principle in her life. However, her husband's death confronts her with something that requires more of her.
In chapter 2, Didion describes the night of her husband's death and the immediate aftermath. Just before eating dinner, John collapses at the table, and Didion calls for emergency help. The paramedics are unable to revive John, so he is taken the hospital. There, Didion is informed that he has died, and she goes back home and, looking through the possessions that he had on him, remembers certain times from their past together.
She authorizes his autopsy. She reflects on the difference between mourning felt at her parents' passing away and the grief that she feels at her husband's death. The night after getting back from the hospital, she calls several family members to tell them what has happened, and a friend comes over. She makes sure to call the Los Angeles Times to inform the obituary section of John's passing, and realizes that she has started thinking in a way of "magical thinking," hoping irrationally that she could bring back her dead husband.
In chapter 3, Didion reflects more about the irrationality of the way she would think after John's death by reading such articles on the psychology of loss as Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" and trying to understand certain situations in which she acted apparently outside of common sense. When asked by friends to donate John's clothes, she finds that she is unable to, since, she thinks, John would need his clothes when he comes back. A call asking whether she wanted to donate John's organs similarly offends her, since it insists upon the absoluteness of his death.
In these first three chapters of her book, Didion switches between recounting the events surrounding her husband's sudden death and various other reflections on everything from her past with her husband to medical articles related to the different stages of handling a person's death and grieving. Although the confidence with which she moves between these different modes - abruptly shifting, for example, from a moment just after arriving in the hospital where John was sent to a documentary she remembers reading about in the New York Times - is convincing, as with much of the rest of the book, such a stylistic device speaks volumes louder about the immensity of the pain of grief than any direct attempt to describe it.
Just after Didion has been informed of her husband's death, Didion's social worker calls her "a pretty cool customer" (15). Didion herself takes on this moniker later in the book, which is itself a very strong example of her "coolness," or at least a particular emotional response that may be viewed as cool. She wonders "what an uncool customer would be allowed to do" (16), but goes no further than putting breaking down and screaming with question marks. Going along with her self-description as a writer, it would seem that Didion is more used to, or derives more comfort from, imagining possibilities for actions and emotional states than by actually acting them out herself. More than going into her own emotions, she wants to be able to take a step out of them and describe them - that is, to take the essential distance required to begin to write, especially about oneself in a trying state.
Her narration of the events themselves is sparse and seemingly unemotional, consisting of short descriptive sentences that proceed like a bullet-point report of events. Didion does not describe her emotional state directly, such as by writing, "I was desperate," or "I was losing my mind." Rather, she uses the very rhythm of her sentences and such devices as repetition of important and heart-wrenching details to impress upon the reader, as it were, as narrator and not the character herself, the emotional intensity of the situation. She writes, for example: "I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance. Someone else" (11). This emphasis on her shock at the sheer fact of the emergency that has come to her and her own ironic unpreparedness for it are impressed firmly upon the reader but not expanded upon immediately; she continues right after, "I called one of the numbers. A dispatcher asked if he was breathing…" (11).
Aside from Didion's reflections on the events, it is also a key facet of her style that she foregrounds an awareness of looking back from a present position after her husband's death to her state at the time. Oftentimes, Didion will first narrate a thought or event as though in that same moment and then follow up with a reflection from a later time that dissects what precedes it. For example, she writes, after describing how she turned offers of friends and family to keep her company: "I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct… I needed to be alone so that he could come back" (32-33).