Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear,” writes C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed. “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
A Grief Observed was published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clark because Lewis didn’t want people to connect it to him. It was republished, two years later, after his death, under his own name.
It’s a slim volume — only 60 pages — and can literally be read in a sitting, which is how I did it. It’s true. Though certainly not a work likely to be deemed a page-turner, I couldn’t put it down. And I didn’t.
I’m not sure it would have been quite so compelling had I not recently been hit with a loss myself — not just of one loved one, but two. On Aug. 15, 2022, my father died, and two weeks later to the day, my quite a bit younger mother followed in his footsteps.
Losing a parent is a big deal. I have heard that said, and now I know. Losing two so close together would have been unthinkable had you spoken to me of such a thing six months ago. But so, it is. And grief is strange. Like childbirth, people tell you all about it to the point that you think you’re pretty well prepared — but then it happens to you, and though it bears a passing resemblance to the descriptions, it’s vaster and more real and stranger and more difficult than you could have ever imagined.
I remember back when I was about 12 years old my family was visiting Paris, and one morning, in our sunlit hotel room, my mother gave me something — some kind of I.D. or card, I don’t remember what exactly — and said, as she placed it in my hand, “This will be good to have when I am not around.” I can’t imagine what the object was that she gave to me that day. What I remember is being struck by the wildly unimaginable and insane concept that there might be a time in my life and the life of the cosmos that my mother would not “be around.” Fortunately, she did stick around, and I was not rendered motherless until about a half-century later — long enough for me to grow up myself and have kids of my own. Yet her death is still a shock to my system and hard to get my head around. I do not think I have really begun metabolizing it.
That being said, I found Lewis’ book to be immensely comforting, but not in the way you might think. It’s not at all platitudinous, not simple, nor easy. On the contrary, it is honest, at times agonized and almost agonizing, questioning and brave — a transcript of a journal Lewis kept after the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman (referred to as “H.,” probably for the same reason the book was not originally published under Lewis’ real name).
Trekking through the pebbly, sometimes sere, sometimes lush, boulder-strewn landscape of Lewis’ thoughts, feelings, hopes and observations following his great loss, one would assume (I think) (I certainly did) that Lewis and H. (like my parents) had been together a long, long time. He is so acutely shattered, so utterly undone and spiritually/emotionally discombobulated at almost every level by her absence. Come to find out, they had quite a short marriage: only three years.
Lewis and Davidman (H.) met when Lewis was in his 60s and she two decades younger. They got married to resolve an immigration problem: Davidman, an American poet, wished to remain in the United Kingdom with her son, and marrying her friend Clive Staples Lewis, a British writer and Anglican lay theologian, would enable her to do so. The two were not strangers; they had known each other for a while, frequently corresponding about theology and literature. Lewis agreed to marry her “as a pure matter of friendship and expediency,” he told a friend.
The two were married in a civil ceremony in 1956, but did not consider themselves officially wed, as the ceremony had not taken place in a church. Furthermore, Davidman was a divorcee, and back in the day the Church of England didn’t recognize divorces. The couple had no expectation of ever having a wedding that would be sanctioned by the church. Even after their civil ceremony, they lived in separate houses.
But things changed when Davidman was diagnosed with cancer and given the news that she had little time left to live. In the wake of this sad revelation, it dawned on the couple that what they had between them was more than friendship; it was indeed true love. They decided they wanted a real church wedding and managed to wangle a deathbed dispensation from an Anglican priest. They were married in a hospital bed in 1957.
After a brief remission following the wedding (which must have felt like a miracle to the newlyweds), Davidson’s cancer returned, and she died in July of 1960.
“Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” writes Lewis. “It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang and knocked you over before you knew what was happening.”
“I see I’ve described H. as being like a sword. That’s true as far as it goes. But utterly inadequate by itself. And misleading. I ought to have balanced it. I ought to have said, ‘But also like a garden. Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge with hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.’”
Though this book does give glimpses of H. as a person, the reader never really gets a vivid, detailed idea of who she was in her life. Considered a child prodigy, she got a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University at age 20. Beyond that she was greatly beloved and irreplaceable to Lewis himself. Her death and his bereavement after her passing are the muse and generator of the narrative — which is most about Lewis’ state of mind during his journey, suddenly solo, through grief, laid bare.
Lewis’ ruminations are fresh, unexpected and oddly and delightfully (if there can be anything delightful about grief) right on the mark. Or so I found them to be. His meanderings and ponderings rang true. His confusion rang true. His fear rang true. (No one I had spoken to had said anything of the fear.) Nothing here I found to be gratuitous or easy. The writing, thinking and yearning go deep and resonate. Unsettling, uncomfortable, even stumbling and almost desperate at times, it becomes somehow the perfect companion for those who have lost someone very important, very dear.
Warning: This book isn’t linear. But, Warning No. 2: Grief isn’t linear. Rather, it is, as Lewis puts it, “like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”
At times, Lewis’ words are deeply personal: “I cannot talk to the children about her,” he writes. “The moment I try, there appears on their faces neither grief, nor love, nor fear, nor pity, but the most fatal of all non-conductors, embarrassment. They look as if I were committing an indecency. They are longing for me to stop. … I can’t blame them. It’s the way boys are.”
There is never a moment when Lewis is not frank, not utterly candid. “The notes,” he writes, “have been about myself, and about H., and about God. In that order.”
Though Lewis was a Christian (he converted in 1931), there is a lot of grappling here with what it means to have a belief in and a relationship with God. But that makes sense, doesn’t it, when one has lost an anchor, lost a sun, lost someone so pivotal and hugely important in one’s life? The loss, the absence, is so big it has a way of jolting (and not in a small way) one’s personal theology and one’s whole experience of life and being. It’s like an earthquake. The world is cracked, and rocked, and quaking, and so is the cosmos. Nothing is quite as it was, even though it … well, it kind of looks the same …
On God, Lewis 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. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
“Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him?”
On Christ: “I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror and an obstacle.”
An old friend of mine who had already been through great hardship in her young life once remarked, “I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t suffered.” I’ve never forgotten her words and they come to mind now as I reflect on this short but deeply impactful book. For me, Lewis is trustworthy because he (1) has clearly suffered — and, in fact, is suffering as he writes this journal; and (2) really does lay himself and his pain bare for all the world to see, without concern for consistency, nicety, or even resolution. And yet, in the end, this work could not be better, in the way it offers us who are also grieving something solid, loving, real and relatable. I found it a much needed and nutritious offering.
Madeleine L’Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time) commented, “Lewis 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.”
I don’t know how this book would land on a reader who has not experienced a great loss. But having just experienced one (two), I found it (as have many over the 61 years it has been in circulation) to be just what the doctor ordered. Thank you to my sister Sharmy for recommending it.