Review of A Grief Observed
By C.S. Lewis
A reconversion to traditional Christianity as an adult, it comes as no surprise that C.S. Lewis’s otherwise insightful essay on grieving would be anchored, if not weighed down, in a religious context. Setting theology aside for those of us who’d prefer it that way in considering grief, Lewis scours his inner state of being following the death of his wife with the thoroughness of a surgeon cutting out a cancer. What he’s produced is a seventy-six page road map for negotiating oneself up from the depths of loss and grief.
Consider this on bereavement itself: “…bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase… We shall still ache…but we are not… seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better… And the more joy there can be in the marriage between the dead and living, the better.”
Lewis completes this marvelous construct by writing that “It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow that H. [his wife’s name is actually Joy] rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness. Not as in my worst moments…but as she is in her own right. That is good and tonic.”
He separates the agony of grief from the self-pity, asserting the former is at least “clean and honest,” while the latter’s tendency is to have one “wallow” in the “pleasure of indulging it,” making of H. “a mere doll to be blubbered over.” It’s the agony of grief that serves to keep the memory of the loved one real and true, rather than a sentimental and false self-pity.
Lewis is less helpful on the subject of death as separation. That’s because help is not available. “It is hard to have patience with people who say…‘Death doesn’t matter,’” he writes. “You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter…She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?”
He considers all such thoughts of somehow reuniting in body and spirit ‘on the further shore’ to have emerged “all out of bad hymns and lithographs.” What’s more, he believes we should know better. “Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back.” To believe that is to believe “there are cigars in heaven.” (The lack of which, incidentally, is probably another reason why Mark Twain preferred Hell.)
One of the most difficult aspects of grief, besides the sheer loneliness that textures the reality of never seeing your loved one again is the thought that you are going through this all alone, and that no one else has ever experienced feeling this bad. C.S. Lewis offers comfort in assuring us that everyone who has loved the way he did does go through it all the same way and to the same depth. In A Grief Observed, he shows us the way out is to accept grief as the antidote it is rather than the poison it feels like.
Like chemo for the soul, I suppose.