Review: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961.

Summary: Lewis’s reflections after he lost his wife, Joy, that explores the different seasons of grief and his honest wrestling with what it means to believe in God when facing profound loss.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

These are the first words of this extended reflection on the experience of grief by C. S. Lewis after he lost his wife Joy to cancer. It is not a theological treatise but an unvarnished account of the devastating experience of loss Lewis faced. During his life, he published this under a pseudonym (N. W. Clerk), only permitting it to be published over his name after his death.

So much of the book is like these opening words, simple description of the experience, and seasons of grief, the loss of energy, the moments of brightness followed by gloom, the remembering, the ache for one with whom he had been so intimate. He wrestles with the question of why, so late in life, he was granted to taste the joy of love with an intellectual equal, only to have her snatched away so quickly.

He speaks of how little comfort he finds in his faith at these times:

    Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

In fact he struggles at times in not believing evil of God and admits it. Certainly he struggles with the concept of the goodness of God. At one point he comments, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?”

He struggles with memories, and the question of how memories distort the character of the beloved. He speculates about the afterlife, but without but confesses that while he believes in the resurrection, it is something he does not understand. He also comments that between Lazarus and Stephen, Lazarus was the greater martyr, who had to die twice.

This is not a book to explain the inexplicable. Not even Lewis could do that. Rather, he simply gives word to his own grief, and perhaps that of others and the impossibility of just “getting over it.” We see someone facing the grief every widow or widower faces of being parted with one you’ve shared life and love with–whether for just a few years, or nearly 70 like my father. It is never easy, and the amazing thing is to watch Lewis lean into believing when one does not see, when all seems dark–with humility, with faltering steps, and with honesty that does not sugar coat death and loss.

This is a book we all need, whether to give words to our grief, or to listen, and maybe have a notion, of what our friends or loved ones struggle with in their grief. Read, reflect, and learn. So much in such a slim volume.

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