Some years ago I picked up C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed for the first time. I had recently seen Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, and I was curious about Lewis’ own version of the events. My instinctive distrust of Hollywood’s ability to capture complex religious characters made me wonder how Lewis’ faith perspective was twisted or strained. As engaging and intriguing as Hopkins was—I still think of a Hopkinsian Lewis when I imagine him walking in fields or lecturing to crowds—I just wasn’t sure Hollywood captured him well.
I especially wanted to find out how Lewis processed the death of this woman who miraculously disturbed the “the placid surface of his existence”—as his stepson, Douglas Gresham put it in the introduction (14)—only to be snatched away as love deepened. So, as a young adult, I picked up A Grief Observed. Almost immediately, I put it back down. I’m not certain I even turned past the first page. I discovered it really was Lewis’ journal I was reading. It was unprotected and unedited and unrestrained. It felt voyeuristic to read it—a feeling that was confirmed for me when I discovered that it was published pseudonymously under the everyman designation, N.W. Clerk. Who was I to peek into his inner life in such a detached way as reading a library reprint on a Friday afternoon?
If I wasn’t a highly voyeuristic person then, I am now. So without any qualms at all I picked up this unique set of reflections. Once again I was struck by the raw nature of the journals—Gresham calls it “stark honesty and unadorned simplicity” (12). Though some kind folk sent Lewis his own book as a way of comforting him—remember, it was published pseudonymously—the voice is characteristically his. The Socratic questioning, however, is turned inward on his own torment. If engaged empathetically, this thin book is painful. Yet, in the midst of the physiological shock of his grief Lewis has penned some of his most honest questions and some of his most beautiful images.
I will deal elsewhere with the question that Madeleine L’Engle raises by saying in the foreword that C.S. Lewis’ “sudden deprivation brought about a brief loss of faith” (6)—I’m not sure she’s found quite the right words for it—and I’ve already given one
of my own personal responses to the book. Meanwhile, though, I have decided to quote lengthy passages that strike me in content or beauty in order to whet the appetite for those who have not yet read A Grief Observed. I’ve left as much of the context in as is reasonable, hoping that the voyeuristic instincts in each of us will draw us to engage in what I think is a unique book in our 20th century canon. Rather than merely grabbing great paragraphs as Lewis wrote them chronologically, I’ve attempted to put it all into some thematic order. It is all about love and grief and loss and faith, but narrowing the lens here and there to share in Lewis’ wisdom never hurts.
On Love and Marriage
While Lewis was an academic expert on love literature—you can see his academic book, The Allegory of Love, and his popular The Four Loves—falling in love and then losing that love taught him something about the nature of love, as well as the relationship of the loving human to God.
One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years H. and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has the thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another—quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want. You might as well say that when lovers have one another they will never want to read, or eat—or breathe. (17)
Despite his work on the subject, see his insight deepen on the topic of romantic love:
It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night!
And yet, not quite together. There’s a limit to the ‘one flesh.’ You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain. What you feel may be bad. It might conceivably be as bad as what the other felt, though I should distrust anyone who claimed that it was. But it would still be quite different. (20)
It is on the topic of love, I think, that Lewis discovers the most, because he discovers that love and faith are inextricably connected to severe limitations within himself.
What sort of a lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers? Even the insane call, ‘Come back,’ is all for my own sake. I never even raised the question whether such a return, if it were possible, would be good for her. I want her back as an ingredient in the restoration of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the first martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal?
I begin to see. My love for H. was of much the same quality as my faith in God. (34)
There is one spot of the film, Shadowlands, that I remember well, where Joy tells Lewis that the pain tomorrow is part of the joy today. Loss is part of love, which is only too real for the bereaved.
If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. (39)
But does that help lovers at all, to know that the pain of loss is inevitable because it increases love? Would we seek that pain all the more? Lewis explains the difference.
I think there is also a confusion. We don’t really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged: nobody could. But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we confuse the symptom with the thing itself. I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the truncation of married love but one of its regular phases—like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. We don’t want to escape them at the price of desertion or divorce. Killing the dead a second time. We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don’t want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will be still married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache. But we are not at all—if we understand ourselves—seeking the aches for their own sake. (41)
On Heaven & Hell
Lewis had taught about heaven and hell and the worlds beyond many times, not least in The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce. Yet his perspective was different when he was the bereaved instead of a well-wisher.
Once very near the end I said, ‘If you can—if it is allowed—come to me when I too am on my death bed.’ ‘Allowed!’ she said. ‘Heaven would have a job to hold me; and as for Hell, I’d break it into bits.’ She knew she was speaking a kind of mythological language, with even an element of comedy in it. There was a twinkle as well as a tear in her eye. But there was no myth and no joke about the will, deeper than any feeling, that flashed through her. (51)
Part of his critique of hollow condolences and awkward conversations after death is a hard pitch at our cultural imaginations of heaven.
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.
Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. (26)
Loss and Faith
I’m not certain that L’Engle has captured Lewis story perfectly in the foreword—after all, even in his keenest grief, he says:
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. (16-17)
However, his comments on faith in the book really do stand in contrast to his earlier work, particularly The Problem of Pain.
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? … There is no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero. ‘Them as asks don’t get.’ I was a fool to ask. For now, even if that assurance came I should distrust it. I should think it a self-hypnosis induced by my own prayers. (16-17)
As Lewis begins to work through these questions, he follows the logical paths that are laid out before him—no matter how problematic they might feel. While he gets lost in the emotions of the questions—a “yell” rather than a “thought” as he describes it on further reflection—the result is a complexity of theological conversation about what God is doing with us.
‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.
Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.’ Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him. … (27)
What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?
We set Christ against it. But how if He were mistaken? Almost His last words may have a perfectly clear meaning. He had found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed. The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited, was at last sprung, on the cross. The vile practical joke had succeeded.
What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture. (28-29)
I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again. Is it rational to believe in a bad God? Anyway, in a God so bad as all that? The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?
I think it is, if nothing else, too anthropomorphic. … But the picture I was building up last night is simply the picture of a man like S.C.—who used to sit next to me at dinner and tell me what he’d been doing to the cats that afternoon. Now a being like S.C., however magnified, couldn’t invent or create or govern anything. He would set traps and try to bait them. But he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend…. (29-30)
Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.
And grief still feels like fear. (31)
Lewis, in his own pain, also talks about what it is to grief—the ostensible reason for the book. And it is in one of those reflections that he begins to understand better the silence of God.
How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’ Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense out of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? (36-37)
Lewis discovers that he really is the drowning man that frantically grabs the rescuer. While the end of the book has a settled feeling, and he continued to write encourage faith letters after these journals ended I’m not certain we see the full consequences of his revelations in the pages. Who is he, now, as door-knocker or drowning man? Lewis does, however, come to sense in a more personal way the pain that Christ bore on the cross for the sake of humanity.
Yet this is unendurable. And then one babbles—‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we should discover how seriously we had meant it. But is it ever allowed?
It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’ (35)
Finally, Lewis comes to a kind of resolution of faith and love—though he warns himself that they may be temporary consolations.
Still, there are the two enormous gains—I know myself too well now to call them ‘lasting.’ Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to H., it no longer meets that vacuum—nor all that fuss about my mental image of her. My jottings show something of the process, but not so much as I’d hoped. Perhaps both changes were really not observable. There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.
The notes have been about myself, and about H., and about God. In that order. The order and the proportions exactly what they ought not to have been. And I see that I have nowhere fallen into that mode of thinking about either which we call praising them. Yet that would have been best for me. Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift. Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it? I must do more of this. I have lost the fruition I once had of H. And I am far, far away in the valley of my unlikeness, from the fruition which, if His mercies are infinite, I may some time have of God. But by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy Him. Better than nothing. (44)
On the Human Condition
The whole of A Grief Observed is a reflection of human nature, but there are couple of key points that Lewis draws out.
Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? (45)
So human is the observation that the tragedies of others never really hit home until they hit home. The five senses and rational brain seem inadequate to the task of imagining loss.
Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has H.’s death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination… If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’ I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t. (31-32)
Who Is God?
Lewis, never afraid to follow the evidence where it leads, did not shy away from the idea that God is a terrible, consuming fire; for Lewis, the God-love that allows for human freedom demands it. But look at Lewis’ reflections of God recapitulated in the context of his grief.
Her past anguish. How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before—I thought it immensely improbable—that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now. H. was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.
But oh God, tenderly, tenderly. Already, month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whilst she still wore it. Is it not yet enough?
The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
Either way, we’re for it.
What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist? (34-35)
Moments of Pain
By way of an ending, here are some cries of pain that stand on their own.
Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue. (19)
Have I forgotten the moment of bitterness when she cried out, ‘And there was so much to live for’? (22)
I think that about says it best.
Page numbers are from the HarperCollins Signature Series edition of A Grief Observed with introductions by Madeleine L’Engle and stepson Douglas Gresham. I first read it in the Fabre edition, so if I’ve made page number mistakes, please message me.