C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed and my grief.
This is my second post on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, the story of his loss of his beloved wife, Joy. Their relationship is portrayed in the movie, Shadowlands.
In my first post, I compared Lewis’ loss with the accounts of a pair of literary writers, Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion. In this post I compare Lewis’ loss with my own recent loss of my wife of forty years, E. This post feels different; my loss is still so raw.
Lewis lost his faith—for a little while. I have less faith to lose.
Actually, it’s not quite true to say Lewis lost his faith in God. He lost his faith in a benevolent God, imaging that God inflicts pain because he can.
Someone said, I believe, ‘God always geometrizes.’ Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects’? (p 41)
What reason, he asks, can we have, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is good? Doesn’t all the evidence suggest the opposite? What have we to set against it? We set Christ against it. But what if Christ were mistaken? “Almost His last words may have a perfectly clear meaning.” (p 42)
Lewis is referring to Christ’s last words in Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34), “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”). They are not Christ’s “almost” last words; they are his last words.* Maybe, suggests Lewis, Christ had it just right. God forsakes us when we most need him. Lewis will revise this heretical thought, suggesting that we are not open to God when we are too desperate and overwhelmed with pain (p 58). But wouldn’t a kind God make himself available then too? Especially then.
The God I imagine is more distant, so I don’t get so angry at him. I don’t expect as much. I can’t bear the thought of an involved God in such a cruel, harsh world as our own.
Nevertheless, I still pray. And every night I ask myself whether it makes sense, in my prayers, to ask that E. be at peace. For two years I prayed that her pain be eased, and that she be blessed. I still start my prayers that way until I remember it no longer applies. What I can’t figure out, and I don’t suppose I ever will, is what sense it makes to say that E. is at peace. Or what sense it makes when one of her friends says that she is no longer in pain.
She is no longer in pain because she no longer exists. The category doesn’t apply. Could the vacuum of interstellar space be free of pain? It’s almost the same question. But could E. be at peace in some way I cannot imagine? Perhaps she is at peace, but the category hardly seems applicable. That, though, may simply be the limits of my imagination; for my limited imagination hardly sets the limits of this world, and others. I suppose that’s why I pray. My hope exceeds my imagination.
Bereavement is part of love
Bereavement, says Lewis, is part of married love. Lewis is wrong, writing as if both partners experience bereavement. They don’t. One experiences bereavement. The other is dead. The dead do not experience bereavement, though—in one of the weirdest parts of the book—Lewis imagines that they do.
If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation . . . then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship. (p 63)
Where did Lewis learn this? Certainly not the Bible.
Perhaps it is his defense against abandonment. For that is what I feel. E. and I married when we were in our late thirties. Our ideal was that we would grow older together. Only now I have been abandoned along life’s journey, to grow older alone, during that phase of my life when I least want to be alone. Because women generally live longer, they experience this more often than men. But in either case, separation is the way of the world.
Who we mourn, and why?
It’s said that when we mourn, we are not mourning the other, but for ourselves, and what we have lost. Mourning is a selfish act. That’s probably true, but what strikes me about E’s death is how sad she was as she lay dying. Not scared. Everyone says we are scared of our own deaths. E. was too, but toward the end not fear, but sadness at all she would miss, took its place. I mourn her sadness too. I think mourning one’s impending death makes perfect sense. I can’t imagine that I shall be so sensible.
Pain is isolating. I knew that E. was in physical pain because she told me. I knew from the expression on her face, her temper, her cries. I could see it in her emaciated body. But nothing marks our separateness more keenly than physical pain. I was in sorrow for her pain, I was angry, upset, but I could not feel her pain. What if I could just take or share her pain for an hour? It would be a great thing. Many parents wish they could take their child’s pain permanently. I’m sure better spouses than I wish they could do the same for their partner.
But as Lewis points out, it’s a pretend wager.
And then one babbles — ‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her.’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. (p 56)
We know it’s impossible, and to my guilty conscience that was probably a relief. I don’t quite know why E’s pain made me feel guilty, but it did. I think because she was enslaved by her pain and I was free. Only I wasn’t, not like before her pain set in.
Did Christ take up the bet?
Lewis argues that Christ was the one who took up the bet. “He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’” (p 56) Trouble is, Lewis suggests that Christ took on not only our sin, standard Christian doctrine, but also our pain. It’s not so.
Even Lewis says that God is not there when most desperately needed (p 58). It may be heresy, but I believe millions of people all over the world have suffered more than Christ on the cross. Christ knew exactly why he was dying. He knew (at least until that last desperate moment) where he was going. Many people suffer physical agony for years, not knowing the reason (the meaning, not the cause), unable to find comfort in their religious beliefs.
That’s just because they are weak, you might say. No. Excruciating pain, pointless pain, endless pain crushes our values, tears at our beliefs, makes a mockery of our commitments. Not always, but more often than not. Just read Elaine Scarry’s account of torture in The Body in Pain. Even without a torturer, the body can itself become the torturer.
It’s worth remembering the first little word in the title of Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed. He’s not making claims about grief in general, just his own. But a number of his observations fit my experience.
Grief feels like suspense, like waiting. . . . . Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness. (p 46)
Grief is waiting for nothing to happen. Time doesn’t flow, it curdles. Rarely do I take it a day at a time. More often by the hour, sometimes by the quarter-hour. Not yet by the minute.
I don’t suppose all people experience grief like this. It must depend on the individual and his culture. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by the similarity between Lewis’ grief and my own. Not just because misery loves company, but because there may someday be a way forward for me too. It won’t involve a return to God, but perhaps I shall imagine him a little more vividly.
* After uttering his last words, both Matthew and Mark have Jesus uttering a loud cry. The Greek for cry is φωνή (phōné), and it means just that, not a word, certainly not a sentence. By the way, the sentence “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” is from Psalm 22.1. The same psalm has David being pierced through his hands and feet, while his enemies divide his clothes by casting lots. The Gospels were written to show that Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. HarperOne, 2001.
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford University Press, 1987.