A Grief Observed. C. S. Lewis. New York: Seabury Press. 1961
A friend gave me a copy of C. S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed right after my father died in 1975. I skimmed it at first but did not really read it because as a theology student, I disliked his work. So, it sat on the shelf for all these years. Then after a tsunami of health issues from 2015 to 2022 required that I face my own mortality. Meditation, lifestyle changes and grieving lost abilities were my constant companions along with finding new ways to adjust and cope. I read and read and read, pouring through (among others) Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hahn, Tolstoy, Sadguru, and Kathleen Dowling Singh. A Grief Observed had become part of the cannon on death and grief so I picked it up again from the shelf on which it had sat for many years. I found myself surprisingly moved by its searing, gritty fury with the loss of his wife and questioning of his faith. The pain of the loss of his beloved wife of only three years is very palpable in this book as in no other I read during this period.
The book reflects three tragedies. First, and most obvious is the loss of his beloved. He was sixty before he married and was bitter that it was taken from him so capriciously. Second, he felt such shame at the depth of his anguish that the book was published under a pseudonym just before his own death. Third, Lewis himself died only three years after her death. The medical cause was listed as ‘kidney failure’ but it could have just as easily been attributed to a ‘broken heart.’ Illness, at times, accompanies complex grief with its wear and tear on the body. Kidney stones erupted in my body a year after my father’s death.
The pain in the book is gut wrenching especially throughout the first two thirds then he begins to find some relief but that is no panacea. He continues to ache but accepts the aching. Lewis created the book from journal notes he maintained after her death which he referred to as the “terrible little notebook to which I come back and back.” He describes the death as feeling “concussed” or having “an invisible blanket between the world and me.” Whenever he thought he was moving through it in “comes the sudden jab of red-hot memory and all of this ‘common sense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” Even shaving is too much effort. “What does it matter now whether my cheek is smooth or rough?” Convinced he was a burden to others he suggested that all mourners could be banished to their own island settlements like lepers. Beautiful love and horrid pain are interwoven in every page. He repeats her anguished cry, “But there was so much to live for,” noting her pain and sorrow. “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other.”
He had little patience for those who pervaded their banal reassurances that she lived on in him. He retorts that is exactly what she will not do. He does not want her memories. He wants her. “My heart and body cry out, come back, come back.” And he knows that will never happen. He spoke of how they had “feasted on love so that no cranny of the heart or body was unsatisfied.” As he wrote of his great love for his wife, I felt loss and sorrow in my own bones. In this way the book is an amazing and surprising affirmation of love and its many pleasures. This man who was never known for writing well of women or of their talents had experienced them for an all too brief period of time. Love is as present as loss in the book.
Then the other loss begins to crop up. “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. He found the door slammed shut and double bolted from the inside. “The longer you wait the more emphatic the silence will become.” Lewis had become a darling of conservative, though not necessarily evangelical, Christianity and the Anglican church with many books including the popular Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. He was not so much an original theologian as an apologist for the faith. A titanic struggle in the depths of despair, loss and longing for her embrace was present. But this was an era with little patience for questioning from a bastion of faith. In addition, it was also the period when men weren’t supposed to cry or have emotions and any Englishman knew, one was to have a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Battling an unacknowledged rigid view of masculinity and a very shame-oriented faith, his questions are brave. If there was more honest searching in my early adult years I might still identify as a Christian. But far too often it felt like faith was the whitewash slopped over human pain and experience. This book does not camouflage any pain from either death or doubt. Lewis should be honored for that even if the book was first published under the name of N. W. Clerk. A curiosity in this is that NW may be derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon word meaning “I know not whom” and Clerk is anyone who can read.
His faith and grief evolved. Although he does not say it, his grief was his version of Jesus going into the desert for forty-days. He is not so much denying God as rightfully questioning much as did Job in the Bible although Job does not escape getting slapped around a bit when God responds to his pain essentially telling him he has no right to complain in the face of the Ultimate. Lewis, most pointedly, began wondering how he could consider God as “somehow good” rather than a Sadistic brute. This wondering is relevant for many in the aftermath of the millions of deaths in the global pandemic. How can any God be considered ‘good’ who permits such tragedies? But, over some time, Lewis came to understand that one sees better if your eyes are not always filled with tears. In moments of “lesser grief” he remembered her more clearly and felt closer to her. And he says, “When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer. But a special sort of no answer. It is not a locked door. It is more like a silent, not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook his head not in refusal but in waving the question. Like, ‘Peace child, you don’t understand.” His pain is not erased. He bemoans the continuing ups and downs of the process. He experiences that the process of grief is not linear but a spiral. Though he is not sure, sometimes, if he is moving up or down along the coil. In grief “nothing stays put.”
He and H. Joy Davidman, who he referred to as H. in the book, were first married in 1955 in a civil ceremony as a way for her to dodge immigration issues and then remarried in the Church in1957 right after her diagnosis of cancer which they considered the date of their real marriage. She died in 1961 and he died in 1963 at the age of sixty-five.
I do wish there were some sort of way to track the timing of the grief and how long it took him to move from the door locked and bolted shut and later open, not ignored in his loss but met with a silent God who knows his pain. But compared to the value and beauty of the book this is mere quibbling.
In this book Lewis evolves in his grief and faith. There is no preaching, or evangelizing, or calls to sinners to repent. There is just a humble man following the foggy path through what the psalmist called “the valley of the shadow of death.” Over the years society has also evolved though numerous crisis and cultural changes for men and women. Grief is not the only place where “nothing stays put.” We are often more open today and faith, at its best, is more willing to question and accept struggle. I wonder if he would agree with the popular meme “It is better to have questions without answers than answers that cannot be questioned.” Lewis’ death is a loss for all of us. It would have been interesting to see how he continued to evolve. But he left us with this book which is well suited for these times.