Do you sometimes find yourself looking at something made of letters and thinking, Hey! I’m not illiterate. I love using my eyes! Well do I have a treat for you. Every month we read a book together as a community and I wanted to introduce you to this month’s pick which is a classic.
The book kicks you in the gut with a great question: Why is it that grief feels so much like fear? This is a question that you don’t expect an author like C. S. Lewis to be asking, especially if you have read his many children’s books where the good always wins. In his Narnia tales like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the evil white witch is overpowered by the untamable Aslan.
But in this month’s book, A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis allows himself to ask the terrible questions and write about his most vulnerable feelings. Two things had just collided in his life. Just as he realized he was in love with his friend Joy Davidman, he was about to lose her.
Joy’s son Douglas describes how their deep intellectual friendship became almost ‘incandescent’ with love. Douglas says, “They seemed to walk together within a glow of their own making.” But as they were declaring their love and exchanging their vows, Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Joy and “Jack” Lewis, as he was called, had three years of happiness and sorrow together.
And when Joy died, it was both grief and love that had created the space they had inhabited, a space that Lewis now had to occupy alone. It echoed – it was immense. And he spoke into it with his writing about the burden of love in A Grief Observed.
He writes, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness.” He describes it as a kind of suspense—so many habits, so many outcomes, are stopped in mid-air. Made impossible now, because of what has changed—is changing.
The reason he wrote was to be able to draw a map of what was happening, first to understand it himself, and then perhaps to help others sharing the same bewildering new reality of love lost.
But he found it was not a state of being, but a process. Grief couldn’t be charted because it couldn’t be pinned down. It didn’t need a map, but rather a history. There was something new to be described every day. But not controlled. Oh no. Grief has a mind of its own. He says it leads you down deep ravines that descend in winding circles. It brings you to eerily normal spaces where it seems you can breathe again, like you always did, but then suddenly you’re crying like you’re eight-years-old again. But without any warning, it takes your hand and settles you silently into something like joy made holy–wordless, indefinable, more real than your memories somehow.
Says Lewis, “There is nothing we can do with suffering, except to suffer it.”
We know that advice from other people can sound a lot like well-meaning white noise. Or like a line separating the grieving from everybody else in the normal world. It makes me wish we learned a bit more from cultures who carve out space for mourning, like the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva” where friends and family gather for seven days together in silence. Or how people in Greece and Portugal encourage widows to wear black for months, creating a reminder for others of their loss.
We all need a bit of permission to allow ourselves time and space to feel the weight of loss, and move through it in our own way. My friend and former cello teacher lost her husband last year, and the week after the funeral, to the chagrin of those thought she should be taking a break, there she was at the piano accompanying the services as she always did. That was her way of living through her loss, with keys under her fingers, helping others the way she always did.
So my dears, what can then be said of grief except that is the burden of love? It can’t be defined or drawn, only suffered. But what must be said, what must be given, is the permission to feel it. All of it. Not as a state, but as a process. No one can tell you what that process must be for you, just now. So gently, gently, let it lead you through.
Your medicine might be what isn’t prescribed by conventional wisdom, though Jack did say he always took a walk, because he wouldn’t dream of going to bed not tired.