A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ernest Hemingway once wrote:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

That is exactly what I feel C.S Lewis did when writing this work.

Lewis fell in love with his Wife (then acquaintance) Helen Joy Davidman, who was previously diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. Previously, he had always considered her highly, but never romantically. The medical diagnosis she received revealed to him how much he loved her, spurring him to take her as his Wife.

Sadly, she later passed away – leading Lewis to write this work which I cant imagine could be the result of anything else but bleeding at his typewriter.

Grief due to loss is sadly something all of us will face at some point in our lives, but rarely have we ever been understanding of why the it feels as it does. We experience grief in-situ and once we recovered, we tend to not look into its nature any deeper. Lewis in this work delves into some of the aspects of grief such as its similarities to the feeling of fear or the fact that grief is more of a process than a moment.

The contrast C.S. Lewis’ makes between direct moments of agony versus the indirect self-indulging depths of self-pity is fascinating. The former, while brutal, is raw but truthful. The latter on the other hand serves no interest but to allow one to wallow in their feelings for their own sake.

Lewis also makes the point that when remembering a person after they have passed, it is tempting to remember a specific, curated image of them. It isn’t uncommon for a person to always remember their loved one as perfect and without flaws, however to do so would be to honour an apparition, a person who never actually existed. To remember the person with all their flaws, with all their human shortcomings is to remember them exactly as they were, and it is this way that we honour their memory the most.

As Lewis says, reality is always iconoclastic.

Its important to note that C.S. Lewis wrote this work not in one sitting, but throughout different stages of his grieving process. At times he came to the bitter realisation that him calling out within his heart for his Wife to return to him was nothing but a cure for his own selfish desire. What if it was not good for her to return? Again he emphasises the need to selflessness during such times and teaches us how it can help us to accept the pain of loss more graciously.

A devout Christian, we see how Lewis struggles to understand how his pain could have been destined for him by God. Although initially confused, I found his analogy of the Surgeon who must complete the procedure instead of listening to the discomfort of the Patient to be masterful in explaining that often we don’t see the bigger picture in how things may benefit us though they seem painful in the short term.

Though Lewis is grieving over the loss of his Wife, he shares some gems regarding his thoughts on Marriage in general. He says that the 2 genders have a metaphorical ‘sword’ between them – our almost innate misunderstanding of each other, our inborn differences in the ways we approach things – and it is only the holy union of Marriage which reconciles us. A union which brings together 2 souls into one, yet both halves remain inexplicably ‘other’, a uniquely beautiful, harmonious contradiction.

Though we may think of someone acting ‘normally’ after some time of having lost a loved one, C.S. Lewis mentions that quite often it is only after this stage of initial grieving that we can begin to remember them better. The initial state of grief has more to do with the emotional sense of loss rather than the act of authentic remembrance. This again reinforces the point that grief is not a state, but a process that lasts many years and quite often a lifetime.

Another valuable takeaway from this book was Lewis’ statement that death/bereavement is not the end of marriage, but rather a part of it. Lewis refers to this as a sort of amputation of the body. When one marries, the reality and implicit understanding of the situation is that one spouse will pass before the other (unless they pass simultaneously). Therefore when it eventually happens that one dies, the remaining partner must understand that this was an inevitability since the start and that it is still possible to honour their spouse under the marriage through the rest of their lives. This was a fundamental life lesson I learn from this book, the idea that everything passes and that we should not only prepare for it, but expect it may seem basic, but it is a reality few choose to face beforehand.

The sorrowful lamenting of his Wife throughout the book is heart-wrenching, and even though both he and his Wife have long since passed, his sorrow is timeless. When Lewis mentioned that his Wife took with him even the happy memories of his life before he met here, I really felt the depth of his grief. It was equally inspiring however to see when he understood that to remember a loved one with gratitude provided a more authentic experience than to remember them with sorrow.

We would all be best to remember that for when the time comes to face our own trials.

Ultimately, this was a masterful work wherein even a topic I felt I had basic knowledge of was proven to be insufficient compared to the analysis of a great mind. While obviously never having met C.S. Lewis myself, this work allowed me to catch a glimpse into his mind and soul as he experienced this grief. I felt pangs of the numbness he felt as he described the hole left in his life.

Though he has long since passed himself, this book is a reminder that we can benefit others with our own grief, even if it is only through talking about it. This book will be of great value to anyone who has lost a loved one, spouse or otherwise. For the rest of us, it remains a window into the soul of the future, for everyone we know has a time for farewell.

Recommended read.

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