Books: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
By publishing A Grief Observed, his private journals of bereavement, C.S. Lewis permits us to share in his experience of pain after the death of his wife. From the first sentence, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” he strips down to his bare emotions and presents them, entirely raw, before his readers. Unashamed and unabashed, he cries out for her, helpless, in an overwhelming state of pathos. Describing the sensations as that of a concussion, Lewis grounds us in the body’s physical response to grief. His body is in a kind of shock, he feels “blanketed” and separated from the normal activities of life going on about him that now seem so alienating and uninteresting. Food has no taste, sleep, when he can get it, offers no relief, and the company of others seems a only a vaguely annoying necessity. Nothing can satisfy him or put him in his right mind other than the presence of the one he lost. Her face, her voice, the smell of her skin, simply knowing she exists together with him on the earth. “I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get, “ Lewis laments. (25) She is dead. She is gone. “ Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into empty air. “ (26)
A Grief Observed describes to us the passion of Lewis as experienced in his body, but does not stop there. Both he and his wife were devout Christians by conversion, arriving at their shared faith by divergent paths. And so, Lewis journals relentlessly into the dark corners of his belief system, fueled by pain, anger and disbelief. Robbed of his partner in faith, he tries to destroy just as he has felt destroyed. He is desparate to discover which of his beliefs will remain standing after this catastrophe. His scholar’s mind ferrets out with scorn, the beliefs that comfort those who mourn: “ Do God’s hands suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? If so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God. He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If he is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before. “ (27-8)
Lewis’ soul needs to go to the extreme of torturous grief, needs to hit bottom, before it can find the bouyancy to begin recovery. He eloquently describes the fear of recovery itself – while his grief seems intolerable, for him, it is a powerful testimony to his love. When this grief subsides, he wonders if he will no longer be able to feel the love. The possiblity of numbing into apathy frightens him. Will he forget her? Will she then be lost forever, even in his memory? Lewis worries that recovery from the grief will in some way diminish his great love and for this reason, he struggles to let it go.
The power of A Grief Observed lies in its brutal honesty and the authenticity of personal experience. For those who have lost a dear loved one, particularly a spouse or significant other, this book will ring true. The reader will feel understood and no longer alone. Since grief can be so isolating, this book would likely be a huge comfort to someone who is going through intense grief, sudden or traumatic loss, complicated or prolonged grief. Reading it could help to normalize the intensity of the experience and create a sense of connection to others. For those who are struggling with the larger issues of meaning surrounding their loss, Lewis’ sincere questioning of faith and subsequent resolution may bring hope and comfort. Lewis takes the reader by the hand through his slow, excruciating process as he heals emotionally and as he reframes, intellectually, his wife’s death. As he begins to regain some hope, Lewis asks, “Why has not one told me these things?” (45) He must have felt like a child lost in the woods, with no way out, no direction, no clues. Perhaps this is why he eventually decided to share his experience, believing that he could impart hope, leaving a metaphorical trial of bread crumbs for others who are bereaved. Even so, Lewis does not answer his own questions, but rather, he finds peace with the remaining uncertainties. As the grief subsides, the love emerges center stage, and this is what saves him. The open ended quality of his hard won peace makes his experience universally accessible to individuals of all belief systems. That the painful process leads to a deeper realization of love will give any reader hope.
Lewis, C. (1961). A grief observed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.