Review: Grief

Grief: A Philosophical Guide, Michael Cholbi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of grief, why we grieve, and its importance in our lives.

The journey of the last several years has been a time of grief for many of us, losing loved ones to the pandemic or to other causes. A host of books have been written over the years, addressing psychological and spiritual dimensions of grief. What distinguishes this book is that, while referencing this literature, this work is a philosophical discussion that seeks to understand what grief is, who is the object of our grief, and how grief is important within the human experience.

Michael Cholbi observes that in much of the philosophical literature, grief is regarded as shameful, a sign of weakness. Cholbi argues otherwise, getting there through a sustained inquiry into the nature of grief. He admits that this may not help a person amid the tumult of grief, but may help prepare us to understand what is happening and how we may grow through it. He begins by considering for whom we grieve, why we grieve some and not others. He proposes that we grieve those in whom we have invested our practical identities, that is those who play important roles in our lives. He then considers what grief is, arguing that it is not a single emotion but a series of affective states, not necessarily those of Kubler-Ross’s five stages, or in that order. In addition, he suggests that grief is a form of attention, challenging us to interrogate the meaning of our emotions toward the one who has died, and what they reveal about our relation with the one who has died, a relation that has been transformed by death.

He then turns to some ethical questions. One concerns what he calls the paradox of grief. Grief is both painful and distressing, which seems detrimental to our flourishing and yet also capable of yielding insights and self-knowledge, shaping how we may live, moving forward. Can something so terribly painful be good? Cholbi moves on then and explores the rationality of grief. Instead of considering grief either arational or irrational, he argues that it is contingently rational, that is, it is “rational when we feel the right emotions in the right degree in light of the loss of the relationship with the deceased that we have suffered” (italics in the original). He then considers whether we have a duty to grieve. He argues that we do not have a duty to other grieving persons or to the deceased but to ourselves because of the good of the self-knowledge that may come when we attend to our relationship with the deceased and grow as rational agents. Most intriguing is that he wonders whether C. S. Lewis, at least on the evidence of A Grief Observed, grieved well in terms of growth in self-knowledge.

One of the most interesting questions Cholbi deals with is whether the peculiar “madness” of grief is a type of mental disorder. Cholbi would argue that grief is a human experience rather than a mental disorder, one from which most emerge, often with greater self understanding that shouldn’t be circumvented. Rather than treating grief as a pathology, he would want to treat the instances of pathology that emerge when grief goes awry.

In his conclusion, he distinguishes grief from other traumas, like divorce, contending that the loss of a person is more severe. I’m not so sure–sometimes the loss of a spouse or a parent to divorce is a living wound that never resolves. He also considers whether a considered philosophy of grief may change the experience of grief. While it may offer understanding of what we are undergoing, the emotional experience of grief and its course is unpredictable, nor can it determine what the specific content of our self-knowledge will be.

I suspect this is not the book to give someone amid grief, if one even can read books at some points during the grief process. I found the book helpful in reflecting upon what my experiences of grief have meant for me. I also suspect such a book, with its contention that we ought lean into the paradox of grief with attentiveness, is helpful. I believe attentiveness is the basis of various spiritually formative practices. It seems consistent that this would be so in the practice of grieving the loss of someone significant to us. Also, the careful discussion that distinguishes grief and mourning, that thinks about who we grieve and why, and that normalizes grief as part of the human experience are all important contributions of this work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide (Second Edition), Albert Y. Hsu. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A narrative of how the author learned to deal with the trauma of his father’s suicide, the questions it raised, and the movement through grief toward healing.

Albert Hsu is a survivor, and part of a large group of similar survivors. Following a stroke, his father descended into depression as he coped with rehabilitation. One night, he went into his own bedroom and took his life. Hsu is part of a group that extends to many of us who have lost someone we love, a friend, a family member, a work colleague, when they chose to take their lives. He writes,

“In most literature on the topic, “suicide survivor” refers to a loved one left behind by a
suicide—husband, wife, parent, child, roommate, coworker, another family member, friend—not a person who has survived a suicide attempt. It is no coincidence that the term survivor is commonly applied to those who have experienced a horrible catastrophe of earth-shattering proportions. We speak of Holocaust survivors or of survivors of genocide, terrorism, or war. So it is with those of us who survive a suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic—equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience.’

. . .

Such is the case for survivors of suicide. We have experienced a trauma on par psychologically with the experience of soldiers in combat. In the aftermath, we simply don’t know if we can endure the pain and anguish. Because death has struck so close to home, life itself seems uncertain. We don’t know if we can go on from day to day. We wonder if we will be consumed by the same despair that claimed our loved one. At the very least, we know that our life will never be the same. If we go on living, we will do so as people who see the world very differently” (p. 10).

Hsu’s unfolds the survivor experience in three parts. The first is the particular experience of grief one goes through when suicide strikes. With many examples from his own experience and those of other survivors, he traces a journey from shock, through turmoil, lament, relinquishment, to remembrance. In shock there is the numbness that may only be able to say “I don’t think I can handle anything right now. I need you to take care of some things for me.” Turmoil is going through a jumble of emotions from grief to abandonment, from failure to guilt, anger, and fear, and even a temptation to self-destructiveness, and a distraction that cannot focus. Lament gives voice to the grief, including acknowledging the reality of the suicide. What I most appreciated is the idea that to lament is to express one’s love for one you have lost. Relinquishment involves facing death as friend, enemy, intruder, and yet that death does not have the final word for those who believe. The chapter on remembrance was perhaps one of the most beautiful in the book as Hsu begins with how his pastor spoke about his father at the funeral, how he began to discover aspects of his father’s life he never knew, and how he created ways to remember his father, not to keep him alive, which he was not, but to honor him, and to give thanks to God for his life.

The second part of the book explores three hard questions survivors struggle with. The first is “why did this happen?” Hsu not only explores the factors that contribute to suicide but also the underlying reason we ask this question, which is because we wonder what we might have done differently. The second question is, “is suicide the unforgiveable sin?” Hsu would propose that this does not put a person beyond God’s forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. The third is, “where is God when it hurts?” Here Hsu talks about the biblical portrayal of a God who enters deeply into suffering, ultimately in Christ, who, as hard as it is to believe or feel, is with us and suffers with us.

The final part of the book explores life after suicide. He explores the spirituality of grief, as we struggle to find purpose in suffering, move from despair to hope, and the experience of healing, but never closure. He writes most helpfully about the healing community, and what is helpful and unhelpful to say and do. Here he also addresses what the church can do in growing in suicide awareness and prevention. Finally, he concludes with some of the lessons of suicide for his own life.

This is a profoundly thoughtful, personal, and gentle book. One senses as one reads that Hsu knows other survivors, people in pain, are reading this book. He gives them permission to put it down if it is just too hard. He carefully names the places of pain, those he faced in his own life. He helps survivors know that what they are feeling and what they are asking are entirely appropriate to the trauma they have faced. He does something more. Having allowed people to openly own the pain they are experiencing, he shares, not tritely but honestly out of his own experience, the journey to hope, and even the hope that one day, they like him may become wounded healers for others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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.

Good Grief!

Good grief sounds like an oxymoron. Only a disturbed person relishes loss. Grieving, whether we face the loss of a person, a job we love, a situation in life or a diminishment of our own capacities, comes with a number of emotions, none of which are pleasant–sadness, depression, anger, confusion and more. Yet Rudy’s message on Sunday proposed that we can grieve well. Is this really possible?

Before we get to that question, I want to acknowledge that Rudy helped me see something more clearly than I had before. It was that because we were created originally to live eternally and not die, we often plan and live for permanence and not loss. We think of being best friends forever, of putting down lasting roots somewhere, of things always being the way they are. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

A good friend observed to me that the first half of life is about acquisition and achievement whereas the second half is about loss. Somewhere along the way, we confront the impermanence of life and that “the center doesn’t hold, things fall apart.” And the challenging question we face is whether the grief of loss is just the gateway to a despairing view of life. Perhaps this is why we try to assuage grief and rush the process because to face it honestly means facing the hardest questions about life.

As Rudy talked about, it all comes back to Jesus and our resurrection hope in him. If Jesus truly came back to life, there is indeed a basis for hoping against hope that there is something beyond the ultimate of all losses–the death of others and our own death. Trusting in his promise, we can face the hardest realities of loss and name them and then realize that Jesus and not loss or death has had the last word. There is a life and a restoration of creation in which we encounter the realization of all our hopes–not only of life everlasting, but of real relationship with those in the Lord we have lost and real work that bears lasting fruit in a creation that is renewed.

How does this help us grieve well? It enables us to have the courage to name our grief honestly with all the emotion that comes with it.  It enables us to allow the journey of grief to take its time with us rather than feeling we must manufacture “all better” feelings when that’s not true. And it enables us to lean into the comfort of God’s promise even when we don’t feel God’s presence.

Loss really doesn’t seem the way life is supposed to be which makes it so hard. The promise of the gospel doesn’t mean an escape from grief but rather that grief needn’t be suppressed nor end in despair–there is hope and light on the other side of the dark night that gives us courage to walk in the valley of the shadow of death and loss.

This post also appears at Smoky Row Brethren Church’s Going Deeper blog.

Review: The Magician’s Assistant

The Magician's Assistant
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sabine is the magician’s assistant to Parsifal who she fell in love with from the moment he called her out of the crowd to be part of one of his illusions. Only one problem–Parsifal is gay. Nevertheless they perform and live together, even when Phan becomes Parsifal’s lover. Between Phan’s software business and Parsifal’s fine rug stores, they become comfortably rich. Then Phan dies of AIDS. Parsifal also has the disease and marries Sabine so that she will more easily inherit their estate.

All this is backstory, or so you think. The book opens with Parsifal lying dead on the MRI table, the victim of a brain aneurysm. Sabine is faced with the difficult task of returning to her life making architectural models and managing a house now too big for just her. She thinks that is all until she learns that Parsifal has a family back in Nebraska for whom he has established a trust, and then that they want to visit to know their son and brother Guy’s life since he left Nebraska. This is totally different from the lifestory he has told her.


Ann Patchet

As the story unfolds, Dot and Bertie visit, and in turn Sabine goes back to Nebraska to understand this part of Parsifal’s life she never knew, including meeting the older sister, Kitty. Through her interactions with this family, she discovers more about the man she loved and why he had hidden this part of his life, and more. In the end, without giving too much away, she finds both healing from her grief, and the love she lost in Parsifal, though not with a man.

And here is where I struggle with Patchett’s plotting choice. I am at once drawn by her sparkling prose and story-telling skill. One feels a quiet sense of wonder as she unfolds the lives of her characters. Nor do I object to her portrayal of gay or lesbian love, although I feel she idealizes these relationships against a backdrop of dismal heterosexual relationships. It is that in the end, Sabine once again defines her life in terms of a relationship born out of grief and crisis, albeit “blessed” in a dream by Parsifal and Phan. I was rooting for Sabine to break free from being “the assistant”. In the end, I’m not sure she does.

View all my reviews