Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Grief Observed

Grief is personal and its experience unique to each person. It’s not something that you can guide someone through, no magic pill or words to miraculously erase someone’s pain. So while A Grief Observed, published under a pseudonym in 1961 and republished under C.S. Lewis’ own name after his death, can’t be used as an instructional guidebook to see you through grief’s morass, its comfort comes in the human connection found in seeing your own similar anger, sorrow, and fears upon the loss of a loved one either wholly or in part mirrored in its pages.

A Grief Observed is a tiny book (76 pages) written by C.S. Lewis on the heartbreaking death of his wife, American novelist and poet, Helen Joy Gresham (nee Davidman), referred to as “H.” in the book. A world renowned author and scholar, C.S. Lewis had led a relatively simple life until he found love and passion late in life with Joy. The unlikeliest of couples; he a stoic British academic, author, and Oxford professor, and H. an American divorcée, mother of two, and converted Christian born into a Jewish family in New York. Yet somehow they found each other and their love and faith persevered in the face of illness, suffering and death.

In the book, Lewis reflects on his grief; it feels like fear he says, like being mildly drunk, struggling to take in what anyone says, needing space yet wanting others about out of dread of when the house is empty. In his pain, he beseeches God for answers, "Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of his shell if it is now doomed to crawl back - to be sucked back - into it?" and at other instances strikes back at God for not answering his pleas, “Where is God?...Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.”

The book was compiled from four notebooks used as an emotional outlet during his period of bereavement. From Chapter 1 to 4, the reader can see the slow progression of healing; as his initial anger dissipates, as the fears of forgetting H. diminish, as acceptance and remembering start to take root. Whereas he initially fears that his own impressions and memory will alter the real shape of her, he later confesses to surprisingly realizing that his dissipating sorrow has helped to lift some kind of barrier and that when he mourns H. least, he remembers her best. “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.”

Lewis concedes that when you least expect it grief returns because nothing stays put. “One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?” He compares grief to a long valley, where you go around the bend and see new landscapes, but sometimes you run across the same scenery you left behind miles ago. Ultimately, Lewis makes his peace with God; slowly realizing the door was not shut and bolted as initially thought, asserting that “perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear,” and accepts that in loving H. the pain was part of the happiness. When you open yourself up to life and love, it all becomes a package deal.

While I see glimpses in Lewis' book of the grief I suffered after the loss of my mom, who was my mother, best friend, fan, confidant and general zen master of my life, I confess that my faith was in fact what saw me through my sorrow, giving me strength and succor. Unlike Lewis, I felt a great sense of gratitude to God for ending my mother’s suffering. But like I said above, grief is unique to each of us. In fact, in the book’s introduction, Lewis’ stepson stresses the use of the indefinite article (the “A”) in the title; making it clear that the book is merely one person’s perspective. Not a right or wrong way to experience grief. Just one person’s journey through the gradual healing process.

I found A Grief Observed a beautiful and insightful book that holds in its pages the wisdom normally found in much larger and consequential tomes. Deeply moving and unforgettable.