Thoughts while reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis begins with a well-known line, at least among those who follow him.
No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. (p 15)
A nervous stomach, constant swallowing–these are some of grief’s fear-like symptoms.
The reason grief feels so much like fear
Grief feels so much like fear because it is fear. The loss of a beloved person threatens to empty the world of value. Saint Augustine writes about this empty world after the loss of a dear friend.
My heart was utterly darkened by this grief, and everywhere I looked I saw nothing but death. . . . My eyes looked for him everywhere and they could not find him. I hated all places because he was not there. . . . I wondered that other men should live when he was dead, for I had loved him as though he would never die. Still more I wondered that he should die and I remain alive, for I was his second self. (Confessions, 4.4.9)
Lewis wonders if grief isn’t selfish. After all, in grief what I really grieve is the loss of someone I held dear. I’m not grieving for my beloved; I’m grieving for myself. True enough, but consider what I am really grieving: the loss of who I was when I was with this other person. The person who I was with this other person I can never be again. I can never be this same self even should I love another. That self is gone forever.
Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent—non-existent. (Lewis, p 19)
If God is the source of ultimate value, then the loss of one’s beloved threatens everything of value. This is where the fear comes from. In many ways it resembles the childhood fear of abandonment: that I will be left alone in an empty world. Writing about the death of her husband of 48 years, Joyce Carol Oates felt devoid of worth.
Here is a woman utterly alone. Here is a woman utterly unloved. Here is a woman of no more worth than a pail of garbage. (p 324)
It’s truly terrifying to love deeply, for almost certainly one will die before the other, and there is no such thing as healthy grief. Grief is an illness of the soul.
Grief, boredom, nausea
Lewis asks “does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?” (p 48) It might, because the experience of being bored stems from an inability to connect with one’s inner world. The boredom of grief is the boredom of a world emptied of value, a world of things that cannot be reanimated. Not just the beloved, but every body is dead. In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, feels overwhelmed by the thingyness of the world, as though he and it were in suspended animation. About this experience Joyce Carol Oates writes that
the terror of mere things from which meaning has been drained—this is the terror that sweeps over the widow at such times. (p 232)
In such a world time no longer flows; it curdles.
God is the one who remembers
One can say that one’s beloved is in a better place, but how many people really believe it? I think the basic experience of loss is the experience that Augustine and Lewis describe, the experience of awe that one so loved should no longer exist.
I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? (p 28)
I like to think about God as the One who remembers. The person I loved is gone, but the fact that I loved her, and we loved each other, is a fact in time and space, and will remain so even if none remain to remember it. For God is the one who remembers. Throughout all of time and all of space, God remembers the fact that I loved and was loved.
God remembers other things, I imagine, including the terrible truth of the Nazi Holocaust and slavery. It is unlikely that God remembers these things as we do (Isaiah 55:8), but he remembers. One might reply that there is a vast difference between my little life and world historical events like the Holocaust or slavery, and of course there is. But God, if he is to make any sense, remembers everything in its place. *
Are faith and grief the same?
Lewis worries that his memory of his dead wife will become more and more his possession, and hence less and less real. His memory of her will become less and less subject to the reality check that was her existence refusing to fit into his idea of her (p 30).
I don’t think there is any good answer to Lewis’ concern. It’s why some people seem to prefer their loved ones dead or at least absent, so as not to get in the way of their idealization of the beloved. Absence makes the heart grow fonder because there is no complicated reality to intrude.
But, there is another side to this story, told by Joan Didion in her memoir about the death of her husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne. “Were faith and grief the same thing?” she asks (p 34). For in both one must believe in someone who is not there, at least not in the usual way that people are present to us. In this sense, grief is good practice for getting in touch with God. Not, I think, a good God, at least in conventional terms, but a God behind the scenes, the creator of all that exists, as well as the One who remembers.
Grief, mourning, bereavement
Until now, says Didion,
I had only been able to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. (p 89)
Lewis doesn’t make a distinction between grief and mourning, but his distinction between grief and bereavement is similar (pp 53, 67).
This is where Joyce Carol Oates account of her husband’s death in A Widow’s Story fails. It is all about her grief during her first year of widowhood. She says she wanted to capture the hysterical, insane grief into which she was plunged, but in a strange way this is the easy part. Lewis’ comments that
passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. (p 67)
That seems right. Bereavement, as much a social category as a psychological one, finds a place for the dead in the land of the living.
Oates concludes her memoir on grief with these lines.
Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death she should think I kept myself alive. (p 416)
There is something small, true, and awful about this conclusion. It’s true: the death of one’s beloved threatens one’s own existence. At the same time, Lewis knows there is a larger world to contend with, and that his late wife now belongs to that world. He concludes with these lines.
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She [Joy] said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornò all’ eterna fontana. (pp 88-89)
The Latin lines are from Dante’s Paradiso (canto 31). Beatrice turns to Dante, but her final gaze is directed toward eternity.
What happens after we die?
I don’t know what happens to us after we die. I think I know that the task of the living is to keep the dead alive in our hearts. That’s called faith.
* Of all Abrahamic theologies, I imagine that mine comes closest to what is called process theology (Griffin).
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage, 2006
David Ray Griffin, Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations. State University of New York Press, 1991.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. HarperCollins, 2009. [all references to Lewis are to this book]
Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. HarperCollins, 2011.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea. New Directions, 2013.