A Grief Observed: A Talk on the Anniversary of My Parents’ Deaths, with C.S. Lewis

Here is a little piece on a special day: the anniversary of the death of my father and brother on a villainously cold night when I was fourteen, and on the eve of the anniversary of my mother’s passing in 2016.

This January in Prince Edward Island, we have had the kind of frightful cold snap that reminds my me of that childhood night of terror–though the cold has now broken into snow and storm. While the weather has changed, on this day, February 4th, it is hard not to go back to that night when my whole life changed, where my awakening into young adulthood was linked with horror and grief.

Since encountering Lewis’ stunning book, A Grief Observed, some year ago, I have been using his memoir to shape my experience and support others in times of loss. This is a brief reflection and video talk from 2018, where a cold snap froze us in early February like it had done in 1990. With a sombre tone and a personal approach, I draw out seven key lessons from Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I have been surprised by the response to this video, which continues to be viewed daily and is my most popular Youtube resource. I hope it can be helpful to those of you who are mourning a loss or guiding others along the way of grief.

It was somewhat eerie returning home on Saturday in the crisp darkness of a Feburary evening. My wife and I went to see Guillermo del Toro‘s Oscar-winning dark SF Fairy Tale, The Shape of Water. The night was cold, terribly cold. With the wind chill it was approaching -30 Celsius (below -20 Fahrenheit). As I got out of the car I smelled wood burning in the frozen air, and I remembered the night of Feb 4th, 1990.

That night was bitter cold–even colder than the early hours of Saturday. My father and his girlfriend had been out for the evening, while my siblings and I watched hockey and found our way to bed. In the middle of the night I was awoken by the smell of wood burning, and then my sister was in my room. The house was on fire and my father was battling the flames in the kitchen. In terror and confusion, we found our way into the Arctic night. In the seconds that it took to move away from our burning home, the cloth I had dappened for breathing through the smoke was frozen in my hand. My father stood for a moment on the threshold, looked at us, then went into the house for my baby brother.

We never saw either of them again. My father was nearly 34, and my brother was nearly 3. I was just 14.

The 4th of February continues to be that day of memory for me. I’ve talked before about the power of grief, of loss, and of what it means to have an event like this in our past. Life moves ever on and on, though, and so does love and loss. I spent the 2016 anniversary of Feb 4th in St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, at the bedside of my dying mother. She succumbed to cancer a week later on Feb 12th, 2016. She was 61.

Though I was no longer a 14-year-old but a father and scholar and leader in his ’40s, what followed my mother’s death was a profound period of grief for me. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced, less emotional than physiological. I largely hid this experience from people in the community–not because of falls ideas of manhood or shame or spiritual strength, but because I did not know what I was experiencing.

In the wake of her death, I thought I was mostly okay. I wrote an intimate and elaborate obituary that I thought Mom would be proud of. Almost immediately I went back to work, writing and teaching and reading.

It was not until the following summer, a year and a half after my mother’s passing, that I started to see clearly.

Like waking up after a long illness and breathing clearly, only then realizing how long and deep that dullness was. That’s what grief was for me then.

It was a cloud that dims clarity without reducing light, a dullness that disturbs intelligence without taking us away from choices, a physical impairment so slight that I could not feel it but so pervasive that it had affected all of my life.

It was like living in a valley of smoke and pollution only visible with the clarity one who has found a way outside.

In all the time I thought I was on my own street and living well in my home, I was in a gray town of choking mist and indistinct buildings.

But then, in time, there is moment of clarity. Last summer, in my garden, my fingers in dirt, I started to see colours peeking out of the gloom. There was vibrancy and brilliance I had not know. I began to see where I had been–though it was still a few more months before I began to breathe more clearly again.

HarperCollins Signature EditionI never understood, even in all the moments of grief and loss in my relatively short life, in all the times I have walked with others, what this experience could be like. C.S. Lewis, though, has a way of capturing that physical, embodied sense of loss that I have read many times but never truly understood. In the opening words of his memoir of loss, A Grief Observed, Lewis writes:

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 to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I 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.

From time to time, I teach an online C.S. Lewis course at The King’s College in New York City. Recently, they experienced a very personal moment of loss. Distant though I was, I could see from afar how many in the campus were reeling, and generally how strong the response of staff and students was to the tragedy. I decided to add a short lecture to my course on the Fiction and Fantasy of C.S. Lewis. This lecture considers Lewis’ A Grief Observed, using my own story of loss and Lewis’ memoir of grief to draw out seven lessons we can learn about grief. While I don’t talk about the lasting damage that my period of grief has caused–my current clarity negates nothing of the shadows of the past–I do share personally with my TKC students as I invite them to think with a strong spiritual capacity about grief and life’s walk in love, faith, and loss.

So I thought I would share the lecture with you. If this can be helpful in your own experience of grief, or in support of your thoughts about the problem of suffering in our world, or in your study of C.S. Lewis, I hope you will feel free to share it. If your own grief is very close and keen, it might perhaps be wise to come back to this in the days ahead. An intellectual response to pain is poor fare for those starving of loneliness or loss. But for those that are ready to think about grief–and to know the experience of the community of mourners in the world around you–this may be a resource for you.

C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed is out of copyright in most parts of the world outside of the US, and is available in places like Gutenberg Canada. In printed editions, there are also thourghful forewords by folks like fantasy writer and memoirist, Madeleine L’Engle, and Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham (I reference each of them in the lecture). I hope to one day write a foreword myself for a new edition so that more readers can find this obscure, unusual, troubling and deeply impactful book.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to A Grief Observed: A Talk on the Anniversary of My Parents’ Deaths, with C.S. Lewis

  1. hannahdemiranda3 says:

    Thanks for posting your lecture and clearly and heartfelt “drawing out seven lessons we can learn about grief”, which are so insightful on grief and mourning!

    Looking for Lewis’s own comments on the difference in knowing in this book with the more theoretical in his earlier book “Problem of Pain” I found this quote from one of his letters: “The real difficulty is to adapt one’s steady belief about tribulation to this particular tribulation; for the particular, when it arrives, always seems so peculiarly intolerable”.
    This, as the Wade centre has just done a podcast series on Love, Pain, and Grief, with a link here to the second one “The Problem of Pain” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrqQaUUhbrk


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Brenton and Hannah,

      It is good to read your reflections on your experience of grief, and the fruitful interaction of what Lewis writes in A Grief Observed, his ” way of capturing that physical, embodied sense of loss”, Brenton.

      Hannah, you have got me thinking about what we do and do not have from Lewis… William Nicholson (if my memory serves me) makes Lewis’s experience of his boyhood loss of his mother a central feature of his Shadowlands television, stage, and film scripts – imagining the ways in which he did and did not react to that experience.

      From Lewis, we clearly have a reaction to Joy’s death set down and then published with little lapse of time. I do not know of anything comparable with respect to his loss of his mother or his father, though I have not yet read all his letters, or diary excerpts, or early autobiographical attempts which have now been published. I wonder how much of the sort of knowing Lewis expresses in A Grief Observed may be implicit in earlier letters to others who grieve? We finally have as much as he says in Surprised by Joy on the one hand, and what may be be appreciated from The Magician’s Nephew as Yvonne and Brenton note below. And then comes his experience with Joy. (Worth noting, in between the losses of his parents and his wife, are the things he writes about his experiences with the loss of his friend, Charles Williams, including the sonnet, ‘A Strange Bugle Call’, which Dr. Higgins quotes in a post at The Oddest Inkling.)

      Hannah, you found a good word from Lewis about “one’s steady belief” and the sudden “particular tribulation” – the reality of both, but also the different ways in knowing, and the very living question of how to relate those ways to each other. His words remind me of a couple things said by the Figura Rerum in Williams’s 1936 play, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, one is “Things spoken seem unfamiliar when they happen.” The other is a comment as Cranmer translating the Latin Mass for vernacular use says, “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks….” and the Figura Rerum observes and asks,

      Ah how the sweet words ring their beauty,
      it is meet, right, and our bounden duty,
      but will you sing it with unchanged faces
      when God shall change the times and the places?

      Liked by 1 person

      • hannahdemiranda3 says:

        That is very well worded what I meant David, and why I posted that quote!
        That difficulty in relating those different ways of knowing, especially when “the tribulation seems so peculiarly intolerable” also seems to be in line with the arguments with which Brenton disagrees with Madeleine l’Engle’s “Lewis losing his faith” in his lecture.
        And could it be that his grief over Joy’s death was compounded by that deep pain of the loss of his mother in his youth? An old wound opening up?


  2. Barb Dingwell says:

    Please reach out to me I would love ❤️ to speak to you regarding this awful event
    I spoke to your Dad and your brother Friday night , I was a childcare worker at Parkdale Sherwood Headstart
    Where your brother when , is effect me greatly

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I did not know about this tragedy in your life, Brenton. I am so sorry to hear of it.

    I always found the scene in “The Magician’s Nephew” where Diggory brings Aslan’s healing apple to his mother very moving, especially when I learned that Lewis’s mother died when he was young.


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