A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Everyone has experienced pain of some sort, to some degree or other. I have not experienced the death of a spouse like C. S. Lewis, let alone the cruel irony that they had been married for so short a time before her death; I have not even experienced marriage. But by virtue of simply belonging to the human race, I have suffered, like everyone. And sometimes, it is an ephemeral passing-by, a mild bee sting. But other times, it is a deep and lasting anguish, something terribly overwhelming. Originally Lewis’s journal, A Grief Observed provides such a startlingly vivid portrait of the latter. Lewis explains things like a fear of forgetting details about his wife, questioning why she suffered and died and left him behind, even being angry and questioning why God would allow it. As a journal, this book provides such deep insight and personal contemplation of seemingly every angle, every facet of Lewis’s grief.

I can make no comparison of my own sufferings to Lewis’s; I wouldn’t dare. But I too keep a journal, both for good times and bad. I recently ran across a particularly despondent entry from quite some time ago, and reading it violently jarred me back to a dreadful night: “The whole night, I just hurt. I was mentally curling into a fetal position. Old wounds bled like they were new. And I’d really like to imagine there’s something noble in this kind of suffering, some sort of beauty inside it. But there’s nothing noble about hopelessness; there’s nothing beautiful about being this pathetic. Cut open the layers of pain, and find nothing but a hollow center. Emptiness.” Journaling on such bad days is a cathartic release of the emotion. But despite the help it had always provided, I had always somehow felt that it was only slightly better than complaining aloud to friends: it still seemed a pity party, just a pity party for one rather than two, or several. Lewis himself says in the book that he shouldn’t buy notebooks for such a purpose because he might become so immersed in sorrow that he’d never stop. But when I think about Lewis’s journaling about his pain, I must reconsider the notion. First, complaining is not necessarily equal to needing a shoulder to cry on, not equal to being in real and serious grief. And second, journaling in fact can be a healthy alternative for when you don’t wish to or can’t speak of negativity to another, as Lewis also says in the same passage.

In addition, although my journaling that distant night was on a very different topic than Lewis’s, one particular passage from A Grief Observed still struck me as hauntingly familiar: “Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened up again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?… How often – will it be for always? – how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty…? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.”

This similarity between my journal entry and Lewis’s in the book – the description of the repetition of the same pains again and again, and the emptiness – is actually something that inspired hope for me. I thought to myself, “He understood.” And not only that, but to think that this literary giant, this great intellectual, this well-spoken and faithful Christian, Mr. Clive Staples Lewis – was human. Lewis’s stepson Douglas H. Gresham says of Lewis in the introduction to A Grief Observed, “C. S. Lewis, the writer of so much that is so clear and so right, the thinker whose acuity of mind and clarity of expression enabled us to understand so much, this strong and determined Christian, he too fell headlong into the vortex of whirling thoughts and feelings and dizzily groped for support and guidance deep in the dark chasm of grief.” The man responsible for Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia found himself in a most abysmal situation, and he hurt and wept and questioned – and he lived. He continued to feel the pain, but he continued with his life, caring for his stepsons until his own death three years later. Some pains don’t go away entirely. But we too must learn to live. We must go about our lives, our duties, and our callings with courage and determination. I strongly encourage you, readers, to follow after Mr. Lewis’s example in grief. He shows us within the pages of A Grief Observed that it is natural to mourn when tragedy strikes; we are not weak to acknowledge our pain. It is normal to try to sort it out. And if that need arises, I recommend that you have listening ears of understanding friends, a journal, and a pen. In addition, I choose to (and highly recommend, if you should choose to) follow Lewis’s example in prayer and seeking God in all things, both in grief and happiness. This builds not a perfect life, but a refuge and solace.

Lastly, I again assert that we are all human; thus, we will suffer. And we won’t always understand everything about life or death or the in-between. But I leave you with Lewis’s suggestion: “The best is perhaps what we understand least.”

Total Pages:76 Friends of Atticus pages: 22,362

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4 thoughts on “A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

  1. Upon losing my precious son four years ago to suicide, I have been on a quest for answers that I will never have in this life….but, I still continue. One of the first books I read to help me sort through my grief was “A Grief Observed.” One thing I know for certain is that grief can never be compared. We all grieve and to each one, suffering is like an individual fingerprint. We all have them but none are the same. Thank you for your perspective.

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