In 1961, an unknown writer by the name N.W. Clerk published one of the most stirring accounts of grief and loss that has ever been penned. The only problem was N.W. Clerk did not exist. The book was written by the Christian apologist and scholar C.S. Lewis. If The Problem of Pain deals solely with the intellectual problem of evil, A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’ attempt to describe the existential or emotional aspects of the problem of evil. The book is a chronicle of the writer’s grief after the passing of his beloved wife of only a few years. After writing letters to each other for a time, the elder Oxford bachelor married Helen Joy Davidson because of the threat of deportation to the states. From the beginning of the relationship, Davidson was ill and dying of cancer. Yet, through an extraordinary example of love, courage and personal surrender, Lewis married the only love of his life anyway. Her departure created what anyone else would describe as a crisis of belief. The noted defender of mere Christianity began to experience the dark night of the soul that is so common to those affected by grief.
Lewis opens chapter one pointing out that “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” (3). The complexities of losing someone you love are deep for him. Grief, embarrassment, fear and drunkenness are all ways that Lewis describes the experience of his pain. The common sense belief that “I was happy before” and can return to such a state fades away as he realizes that her love was too weighty and transformative for such cold logic to mend his sorrow. All throughout this ordeal, the question of God’s nearness is raised. “Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” (6). Quaint, well-intentioned statements about the suffering of Christ does not alleviate the hurt because, though he may understand the pain, the griever’s experience of God’s absence is unbearable. Lewis does not seem to deny God’s existence; it is his goodness that is questioned. He writes, “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” (6). For him, the fact that God is not near speaks against his benevolence. Amidst the grief, the writer struggles to find people to talk with about the pain. To some, to mention her death is an embarrassment. To others, Lewis’ very presence is “a death’s head” because he is not the same person. He is missing something. Lewis goes on to describe the nature of a loved one dying of cancer and how it sets the people who suffer on different paths. They both suffer, but the suffering is not the same. He writes, “I had my miseries, not hers she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine. We were setting out of different roads” (13). Lewis closes the chapter rebuking those who view death as a friend or as inconsequential. As long as one loves another and that one is taken away so that the lover cannot experience their joyful presence anymore, death remains important. Her death holds the power to turn the apologist into a weeping child.
Chapter two contains similar themes and reflections evident within the earlier one. The author seeks to think about other things but finds he is “thinking about her nearly always.” Her absence is excruciatingly clear because the marriage bond gave the writer a “constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other” (18-19). Her nearness was too good to merely forget about like some cold, hollow fact. Lewis recounts a meeting of a man he had not seen in ten years. Obviously, the man’s actual existence was quite different than he had remembered. Will this happen to Joy? The author fears that his memories will fade and all that will be left is her grave. And to him, she is not there. He cannot even pray for her because there’s too much bewilderment and amazement involved. The apologist begins to question the nature of the afterlife. Though an interesting thought and reality, Lewis’ wife being in heaven does not alleviate his grief. It cannot. He will listen to someone talk about the truth of religion. He will listen to someone talk about the duty of religion. But, C.S. Lewis just cannot listen to someone talk about the consolation of religion because for him, there currently is none. The writer spends the good part of three pages discussing God’s desire to wound those he loves, his lack of goodness and the fact that he is nowhere to be found. He finally returns to the unreasonableness of an evil God but closes the chapter again amidst the stupor of an agonizing heartache.
What grounds does the author have for questioning the goodness of God? Lewis knows that suffering is promised to all those who believe. Yet, his faith has not helped him. Because of the pain, Lewis finds that his faith “…was not faith but imagination” (37). His faith was untested faith that was exposed to the horrors of death and it changed. The author admits that all his talk about a possible sadist God is really nothing more than an expression of hatred. He writes, “I was getting from it the only pleasure a man in anguish can get; the pleasure of hitting back” (40). During the tribulation, Lewis wakes up one morning to find that his affliction has slightly changed. The man is able to see the beauty in the world while remembering the beauty of his beloved wife. This leads him to extol the goodness of her love while also questioning the nature of what it means for God to speak during our woes. Maybe our grief causes us to deafen our ears to his voice? Maybe our cries drown out the still small voice? Lewis’ consolation was only momentary because the “hells of a young grief have opened again” (56). The section closes with yet another anguished night for the learned man.
In the last portion of the book, the apologist discovers that grief is a process with many phases, feelings and new experiences. He fears that one day their love will merely be a charming episode reflected upon within a rather normal, unchanged life. Such hindsight is feared by Lewis as a second death. The chapter gives evidence that Lewis found strength to faithfully trust in God who seemed to finally return to the bereaved disciple. He finds that he “needs Christ, not something that resembles Him…[He needs] H., not something like her” (65). His relationship with Joy is now much like his relationship with God. He says, “…loving her has become, in its measure, like loving Him. In both cases I must stretch out the arms and hands of love” (66). He has to think about Joy the way he thinks about God. They must be true thoughts; not those based upon what he wants to remember one for. The chapter moves near the end with Lewis describing the nature of what it means to trust God, the reunion with loved ones and what God wants from those who suffer. He does not find a locked door anymore as he asks his timely questions. “It is more like a silent…gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand’” (69). The book ends with Joy’s last words of “I am at peace with God’” (76).
As I read the book, I tended to wince at the parts where Lewis tended to shake his hands at heaven. I then realized that the pain Lewis felt was a result of love. It was its servant. A Grief Observed provides a very stunning portrayal of love between a married couple. The fact that such intense grief appears throughout the pages of the book is testimony to the immensity and profundity of their love. The greater the relationship, the more devastating the agony that results from a rift in it. He asks “Why was H. not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more” (48). While noting all the good things about his beloved, he also notes that her mere companionship was the most precious gift. In a world where vain pursuits, money and looks define a relationship, A Grief Observed offers a younger generation a representation of what it means to give yourself to another.
The book is also heart-wrenchingly honest in its descriptions about what death robs from lovers. Trite statements of “it will all work out in time” and “you’ll see them again” belittle the suffering being experienced by the bereaved. It was refreshing to see the very academically astute writer depict the very common, viscerally life-changing effects of what death does to the human soul. He is right to reject death as a “friend” though it brings us to see the Lord’s face. For the Christian, death still remains an enemy though the sting of death (the Law) has been removed. While I do not know how I would respond to God in the same situation, I can at least appreciate C.S. Lewis’ straightforward recounting of what he actually experienced. Christians still grieve albeit they grieve with hope. One thing I noticed that was lacking from the text was any statements made concerning how his church or friends were there for the man. He admitted he had great friends but that statement left me asking “where are they?” Though their words would not change the situation, their mere quiet presence (unlike the friends of Job) could have prevented Lewis many of the outlandish flights from true statements about God’s nearness. I get the sense that Lewis isolated himself during his misery. Something else to be praised concerning the book is its brevity. If the book was any longer, my interest would have waned because one can only look into such mourning for so long. It would’ve begun to take an emotional toll on my own life.
I’m hesitant to offer critiques of the book because of its nature. The work feels less like a book and more like a personal journal that Lewis utilized during a dark period in his life. Who am I to critique someone’s sufferings? I have experienced loss within my immediate family because of cancer and have thought and felt similar emotions as the apologist. When someone is in the midst of terrible feelings of distress, they tend to affirm things they, when thinking lucidly, reject latter. At times the book did not seem to possess an extended argument advanced throughout its pages but that’s the nature of grief. It comes and goes in waves. I would say that A Grief Observed should be read alongside or included with The Problem of Pain. In a lot of ways, the book functioned as the opposite side of the same coin. If he appeared emotionally detached in one, he most certainly made up for the lack in another. The book is valuable to learn the varied dimensions of what it means to have faith during times of loss. In reading about his pain, one can learn about his or her own maladies. He or she can be taught what it means to be human with the imminent knowledge of mortality. Because of that, I would recommend this book to anyone going through the loss of someone dear.