As we near the end of November, the month in which we remember the dead, it seems appropriate to think about how death affects those left behind. As believers in particular, we carry the hope of the resurrection, but we were never promised we wouldn’t feel pain, loneliness, and loss. Theology can only console a grieving heart so much.
I’ve made no secret here of my affinity for C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity has blown my mind more than once, I found The Screwtape Letters pleasantly chilling, The Problem of Pain was a heavy answer to a critical question, and The Four Loves was enriching and enlightening. And now for something completely different. Although his religious background comes through mightily in his writing, it is in A Grief Observed that we get to see his heart. Lewis was married for just four years to an American named Joy. She died of cancer, taking so much of him with her. In this slim volume, we see less of the head and more of the heart.
In the edition I read, there is a foreword and an introduction elaborating on the circumstances of Lewis’s writing. His stepsons couldn’t talk about their mother because they had been taught not to cry, and Lewis was already a writer, so it seemed the natural way to work through his feelings. He gathered up all the blank notebooks he could find and constructed a journal. The writing is not his usual style—it’s choppy, sometimes repetitive or contradictory, and uncertain—but it’s real. Can we expect eloquence from a man in such pain? Perhaps we can, but when we can’t, when we lose our ability to make sense of the world after losing someone we love, we can find comfort in the shared experience of another.
Lewis is a great apologist, so even in his journals, he wonders about God and about what comes after death. He considers whether he believes in God or not, and then whether God is sadistic or benevolent, all tempered by his severe grief at the death of Joy (called H). He acknowledges that neither he nor his wife are quite saintly enough to be whisked directly off to heaven “the moment death has rattled in the throat.” We Catholics call that purgatory: the time between death and heavenly perfection when we are purified by our own suffering and the prayers of others. He considers what platitudes such as “she is at peace now,” “she is in God’s hands,” and “she will live forever in your memory” mean to him. Memory is notoriously unreliable; is she better off living there or living in the afterlife? When no one on Earth remembers her, will she die again? We are admonished in Scripture not to “mourn like those who have no hope,” but does that prevent us from mourning ever, from feeling sorrow over death at all? Would God be so cruel—if so, why? So much remains uncertain and unanswered, and unlike in his other nonfiction, there are no sure answers here.
A Grief Observed is a meditation. It’s subjective: notice that the title references “a” grief, his grief, not grief itself. It’s not a how-to manual for managing grief or a theological reflection on death. It’s the heartbroken musings of a man who has lost his beloved after taking so long to find her in the first place. Lewis’s book was so touching that, since he published it anonymously, his friends actually recommended it to him as an aid in his sorrow.
Who do you know that this book might help?
How about you?