A Grief Observed

This reflection by C.S. Lewis is deep, profound, insightful, and uncertain about the death of his wife. They spent only a handful of years together, but formed a tremendously beautiful, intimate bond during that time. He reflects on the depths of grief, how it shook his faith down to the foundations, and how this grief was so much more painful than he ever imagined it could be. This is a tremendous book of trying to put the experience of deep grief onto paper, and I would highly recommend it to anybody going through a profound loss.

C.S. Lewis is widely known as a famous Christian writer, an apologist whose peer group included JRR Tolkien. Most of his best-known works involve defending the ideas and concepts in Christianity; however, this book exposes his questions, his doubts, and his concerns about what truly happens after death. It is less a book than a series of journals, written in the weeks following his wife’s death. He dives to the depths of sorrow and is excruciatingly open with his pain, questioning what he believes and how he experiences life now that she is gone. His questioning ranges from the practical (why should I shave now that my lover is gone?) to the existential (what if God is a sadist rather than benevolent?), and his strong intellect probes the possibilities of each question. Having recently lost my father-in-law, my mind has gone towards some similar questions in recent months, and so this book drew upon recent emotions, rather than serving as an academic evaluation of grief. Which is how it should be read — if you haven’t experienced deep grief recently, this book probably isn’t worth reading. If you have, this is a tremendous companion through the depths of sadness. It does have a Christian flair, of course, though it was less Christ-oriented than I expected going in. He really talks about the immensity of grief, the gray cloud coloring everything in his life, how it changed him at a fundamental level, and these are universal experiences that anybody who has lost a loved one can relate to.

My takeaway from the book is that event the most brilliant people face tremendous sadness and questioning through death, and that these are appropriate and normal feelings. In starting to read “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they express pain and suffering not as side effects of life, but as part and partial to life. Bringing that perspective into Lewis’ book doesn’t change the fact that death blows a hole in your life and makes you question the very foundations of everything, but does at least acknowledge that this is a component of our existence — not pleasant, for sure, but perhaps important in order for us to experience the tremendous happiness that we are also capable of. While stoics tamp down the negative emotions, they also necessarily tamp down the positive emotions, simply accepting the actions outside themselves without a negative or positive emotional response. I prefer to live with the abundance of emotions, and if that means horrendous lows will accompany the great joys of my life, then I accept that arrangement.