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A Grief Observed

C. S. Lewis

  A Grief Observed

  C. S. Lewis


  Foreword by Madeleine L’Engle

  Introduction by Douglas H. Gresham

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  About the Author

  Other Books by C. S. Lewis



  About the Publisher


  When A Grief Observed was first published under the pseudonym of N. W. Clerk it was given me by a friend, and I read it with great interest and considerable distance. I was in the middle of my own marriage, with three young children, and although I felt great sympathy for C. S. Lewis in his grief over the death of his wife, at that time it was so far from my own experience that I was not deeply moved.

  Many years later, after the death of my husband, another friend sent me A Grief Observed and I read it, expecting to be far more immediately involved than I had on the first reading. Parts of the book touched me deeply, but on the whole my experience of grief and Lewis’s were very different. For one thing, when C. S. Lewis married Joy Davidman, she was in the hospital. He knew that he was marrying a woman who was dying of cancer. And even though there was the unexpected remission, and some good years of reprieve, his experience of marriage was only a taste, compared to my own marriage of forty years. He had been invited to the great feast of marriage and the banquet was rudely snatched away from him before he had done more than sample the hors d’oeuvres.

  And to Lewis that sudden deprivation brought about a brief loss of faith. “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.”

  The death of a spouse after a long and fulfilling marriage is quite a different thing. Perhaps I have never felt more closely the strength of God’s presence than I did during the months of my husband’s dying and after his death. It did not wipe away the grief. The death of a beloved is an amputation. But when two people marry, each one has to accept that one of them will die before the other. When C. S. Lewis married Joy Davidman, it was a pretty certain expectation that she would die first, unless there was an unexpected accident. He moved into marriage with an imminent expectation of death, in an extraordinary witness of love and courage and personal sacrifice. Whereas a death which occurs after a full marriage and a reasonable life span is part of the whole amazing business of being born and loving and living and dying.

  Reading A Grief Observed during my own grief made me understand that each experience of grief is unique. There are always certain basic similarities: Lewis mentions the strange feeling of fear, the needing to swallow, the forgetfulness. Perhaps all believing people feel, like Lewis, a horror of those who say of any tragedy, “Thy will be done,” as though a God of love never wills anything but good for us creatures. He shows impatience with those who try to pretend that death is unimportant for the believer, an impatience which most of us feel, no matter how strong our faith. And C. S. Lewis and I share, too, the fear of the loss of memory. No photograph can truly recall the beloved’s smile. Occasionally, a glimpse of someone walking down the street, someone alive, moving, in action, will hit with a pang of genuine recollection. But our memories, precious though they are, still are like sieves, and the memories inevitably leak through.

  Like Lewis, I, too, kept a journal, continuing a habit started when I was eight. It is all right to wallow in one’s journal; it is a way of getting rid of self-pity and self-indulgence and self-centeredness. What we work out in our journals we don’t take out on family and friends. I am grateful to Lewis for the honesty of his journal of grief, because it makes quite clear that the human being is allowed to grieve, that it is normal, it is right to grieve, and the Christian is not denied this natural response to loss. And Lewis asks questions that we all ask: where do those we love go when they die?

  Lewis writes that “I have always been able to pray for the dead, and I still do, with some confidence. But when I try to pray for H. [as he calls Joy Davidman in this journal], I halt.” And this feeling I well understand. The beloved is so much a part of ourselves that we do not have the perspective of distance. How do we pray for what is part of own heart?

  We don’t have any pat answers. The church is still pre-Copernican in its attitude toward death. The medieval picture of heaven and hell hasn’t been replaced with anything more realistic, or more loving. Perhaps for those who are convinced that only Christians of their own way of thinking are saved and will go to heaven, the old ideas are still adequate. But for most of us, who see a God of a much wider and greater love than that of the tribal God who only cares for his own little group, more is needed. And that more is a leap of faith, an assurance that that which has been created with love is not going to be abandoned. Love does not create and then annihilate. But where Joy Davidman is now, or where my husband is, no priest, no minister, no theologian can put into the limited terms of provable fact. “Don’t talk to me about the consolations of religion,” Lewis writes, “or I shall suspect that you do not understand.”

  For the true consolations of religion are not rosy and cozy, but comforting in the true meaning of that word: com-fort: with strength. Strength to go on living, and to trust that whatever Joy needs, or anyone we love who has died needs, is being taken care of by that Love which began it all. Lewis rightly rejects those who piously tell him that Joy is happy now, that she is at peace. We do not know what happens after death, but I suspect that all of us still have a great deal to learn, and that learning is not necessarily easy. Jung said that there is no coming to life without pain, and that may well be true of what happens to us after death. The important thing is that we do not know. It is not in the realm of proof. It is in the realm of love.

  I am grateful, too, to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God with angry violence. This is a part of healthy grief not often encouraged. It is helpful indeed that C. S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed. It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own angers and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.

  So Lewis shares his own growth and his own insights. “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.” Yes, that is the calling of either husband or wife after the other has died.

  I have pictures of my husband in my study, in my bedroom, now, after his death, as I had them around while he was alive, but they are icons, not idols; tiny flashes of reminders, not things in themselves, and, as Lewis says, sometimes a block rather than a help to the memory. “All reality is iconoclastic,” he writes. “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness…. And this, not an image ormemory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.”

  And that is more important than visitations from the dead, though Lewis discusses that possibility of these. In the end, what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for Joy and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love.

  No easy or sentimental comforts are offered, but the ultimate purpose of God’s love for all of us human creatures is love. Reading A Grief Observed is to share not only in C. S. Lewis’s grief but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.

  Madeleine L’Engle

  Crosswicks, August 1988


  A Grief O
bserved is not an ordinary book. In a sense it is not a book at all; it is, rather, the passionate result of a brave man turning to face his agony and examine it in order that he might further understand what is required of us in living this life in which we have to expect the pain and sorrow of the loss of those whom we love. It is true to say that very few men could have written this book, and even truer to say that even fewer men would have written this book even if they could, fewer still would have published it even if they had written it.

  My stepfather, C. S. Lewis, had written before on the topic of pain (The Problem of Pain, 1940), and pain was not an experience with which he was unfamiliar. He had met grief as a child: he lost his mother when he was nine years old. He had grieved for friends lost to him over the years, some lost in battle during the First World War, others to sickness.

  He had written also about the great poets and their songs of love, but somehow neither his learning nor his experiences had ever prepared him for the combination of both the great love and the great loss which is its counterpoint; the soaring joy which is the finding and winning of the mate whom God has prepared for us; and the crushing blow, the loss, which is Satan’s corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved.

  In referring to this book in conversation, one often tends to leave out, either inadvertently or from laziness, the indefinite article at the beginning of the title. This we must not do, for the title completely and thoroughly describes what this book is, and thus expresses very accurately its real value. Anything entitled “Grief Observed” would have to be so general and nonspecific as to be academic in its approach and thus of little use to anyone approaching or experiencing bereavement.

  This book, on the other hand, is a stark recounting of one man’s studied attempts to come to grips with and in the end defeat the emotional paralysis of the most shattering grief of his life.

  What makes A Grief Observed even more remarkable is that the author was an exceptional man, and the woman whom he mourns, an exceptional woman. Both of them were writers, both of them were academically talented, both were committed Christians, but here the similarities end. It fascinates me how God sometimes brings people together who are so far apart, in so many ways, and merges them into that spiritual homogeneity which is marriage.

  Jack (C. S. Lewis) was a man whose extraordinary scholarship and intellectual ability isolated him from much of mankind. There were few people among his peers who could match him in debate or discussion, and those who could almost inevitably found themselves drawn to one another in a small, tight-knit group which became known as “The Inklings,” and which has left us with a legacy of literature. J.R.R. Tolkien, John Wain, Roger Lancelyn-Green, and Neville Coghill were among those who frequented these informal gatherings.

  Helen Joy Gresham (née Davidman), the “H.” referred to in this book, was perhaps the only woman whom Jack ever met who was his intellectual equal and also as well-read and widely educated as he was himself. They shared another common factor: they were both possessed of total recall. Jack never forgot anything he had read, and neither did she.

  Jack’s upbringing was a mixture of middle-class Irish (he came from Belfast, where his father was a police-court solicitor) and English, set in the very beginnings of the twentieth century—a time when the concepts of personal honour, total commitment to one’s given word, and the general principles of chivalry and good manners were still drummed into the young British male with rather more intensity than was any other form of religious observance. The writing of E. Nesbit, Sir Walter Scott, and perhaps Rudyard Kipling were the exemplars of the standards with which Jack was indoctrinated as a young man.

  My mother, on the other hand, could not have come from a background more divergent from his. The daughter of two lower-middle-class Jewish second-generation immigrants, her father of Ukrainian, her mother of Polish origins, she was born and brought up in the Bronx in New York City. The only striking similarities to be found in the comparison of their early developments were that they were both possessed of truly amazing intelligence combined with academic talent and eidetic memory. They both came to Christ via the long and difficult road which leads from Atheism, to Agnosticism, and thence by way of Theism finally to Christianity, and they both enjoyed remarkable success in their university student careers. Jack’s was interrupted by his duty to his country in the First World War, and Mother’s by political activism and marriage.

  Much has been written, both fictional and factual (sometimes one masquerading as the other) concerning their lives and their meeting and marriage, but the most important part of the story pertaining to this book is simply a recognition of the great love that grew between them until it was an almost visible incandescence. They seemed to walk together within a glow of their own making.

  To understand even a little of the agony which this book contains, and the courage it demonstrates, we must first acknowledge that love between them. As a child, I watched these two remarkable people come together, first as friends, then, in an unusual progression, as husband and wife, and finally as lovers. I was part of the friendship; I was an adjunct to the marriage, but I stood aside from the love. By that I do not mean that I was in any way deliberately excluded, but rather that their love was something of which I could not, and should not, be a part.

  Even then in my early teen years I stood aside and watched the love grow between these two, and was able to be happy for them. It was a happiness tinged with both sadness and fear, for I knew, as did both Mother and Jack, that this, the best of times, was to be brief and was to end in sorrow.

  I had yet to learn that all human relationships end in pain—it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love. I had the resilience of youth upon which to fall when Mother died; for me there would be other loves to find and no doubt in time to lose or be lost by. But for Jack this was the end of so much which life had for so long denied him and then briefly held out to him like a barren promise. For Jack there were none of the hopes (however dimly I might see them) of bright sunlit meadows and life-light and laughter. I had Jack to lean upon, poor Jack only had me.

  I have always wanted the opportunity to explain one small thing that is in this book and which displays a misunderstanding. Jack refers to the fact that if he mentioned Mother, I would always seem to be embarrassed as if he had said something obscene. He did not understand, which was very unusual for him. I was fourteen when Mother died and the product of almost seven years of British Preparatory School indoctrination. The lesson I was most strongly taught throughout that time was that the most shameful thing that could happen to me would be to be reduced to tears in public. British boys don’t cry. But I knew that if Jack talked to me about Mother, I would weep uncontrollably and, worse still, so would he. This was the source of my embarrassment. It took me almost thirty years to learn how to cry without feeling ashamed.

  This book is a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane. It tells of the agony and the emptiness of a grief such as few of us have to bear, for the greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress.

  When Jack was racked with the emotional pain of his bereavement, he also suffered the mental anguish resulting from three years of living in constant fear, the physical agony of osteoporosis and other ailments, and the sheer exhaustion of spending those last few weeks in constant caring for his dying wife. His mind stretched to some unimaginable tension far beyond anything a lesser man could bear; he turned to writing down his thoughts and his reactions to them, in order to try to make some sense of the whirling chaos that was assaulting his mind. At the time that he was writing them, he did not intend that these effusions were to be published, but on reading through them some time later, he felt that they might well be of some help to others who were similarly afflicted with the turmoil of thought and feeling which grief forces upon us. This book was first published under the pseudonym of N. W. Clerk. I
n its stark honesty and unadorned simplicity the book has a power which is rare: it is the power of unabashed truth.

  To fully appreciate the depths of his grief I think it is important to understand a little more of the circumstances of Jack and Mother’s initial meeting and relationship. My mother and father (novelist W. L. Gresham) were both highly intelligent and talented people and in their marriage there were many conflicts and difficulties. Mother was brought up an atheist, and became a communist. Her native intelligence did not allow her to be deceived for long by that hollow philosophy, and (by this time, married to my father) she found herself searching for something less posturing and more real.

  Encountering amid her reading of a wide variety of authors the work of the British writer C. S. Lewis, she became aware that beneath the fragile and very human veneer of the organized churches of the world, there lies a truth so real and so pristine that all of man’s concocted philosophical posings tumble into ruin beside it. She became aware also that here was a mind of hitherto unparalleled clarity. As all new believers do, she had questions, and so she wrote to him. Jack noticed her letters at once, for they too signalled a remarkable mind, and a penfriendship soon developed.

  In 1952 Mother was working on a book about the Ten Commandments (Smoke on the Mountain: Westminster Press, 1953), and while convalescing from a serious illness journeyed to England determined to discuss the book with C. S. Lewis. His friendship and advice were unstinting as were those of his bother, W. H. Lewis, an historian and himself a writer of no mean ability.

  On her return to America, Mother (now a complete Anglophile), discovered that her marriage to my father was over, and following the divorce she fled to England with myself and my brother. We lived for a while in London, and although letters were exchanged, Jack was not a visitor to our home, he rarely came to London, which was a city he was not fond of, and Mother and he were merely intellectual friends at this time, though in common with many other people we were the recipients of considerable financial assistance from his special charity fund.