Loss and grief spare no one. When loss cast a long shadow across the literary giant C.S. Lewis’ door, he wrote about it. A Grief Observed is the collection of thoughts after the loss of his wife. It’s an unfiltered account of his feelings, and the thoughts that troubled him are cataloged while he was working his way through the grief.
C.S. Lewis was – because of his great intellect – very isolated. Sure, he had his Inklings literary group with J. R. R. Tolkien, but according to his stepson, he struggled to relate to much of mankind. His comments were not a criticism but rather a recognition of the struggles of the man he called “Jack” (for no reason made clear by the introduction).
However, Lewis’ isolation is only one aspect of the isolation that permeates the book. The other form of isolation is the expectation that “British boys don’t cry,” separating them from their emotions. While Lewis was more in touch with his feelings than most, there’s still this eerie sense that the struggle to find, name, accept, and process emotions was difficult for Lewis and the others with whom he associated.
Thinking About Endless Grief
“I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.” This sad statement encompasses hopelessness. Grief may remain for a lifetime, but it will change and, in some ways, get better. However, in the depths of despair, when hope has gone away to a far away land, it’s hard to believe that the pain of today will be any less tomorrow, or the day after. Instead of seeing the natural ebb and flow of life, we become fixated on our momentary pain and sit mourning without sense of recovery.
Like anything gradual, it’s hard to see change. It’s hard to see moments that happiness peeks through the pain like flowers emerging in the spring. Slowly, not all at once, grief is transformed. When you are able to look at grief across a period of time, you begin to see and understand that it’s not the same grief you initially felt. Lewis’ writing allowed him and now allows us the opportunity to see the gradual turning of grief as it becomes less painful and more reverent to those we’ve lost.
“An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” The man Lewis was couldn’t escape the boy he had been nor the cultural expectations of the time. No man could possibly hide the excruciating pain of the loss of a spouse, and he saw his failure to hide his emotions as an embarrassment.
We know today that the loss of a significant person in our life requires our brain to literally rewire itself. Over time, we begin to separate aspects of our total experience so that one person does some functions and other people do other functions. Everyone needs to do things like eat and take care of themselves, but they often reduce their capacity for cooking or other duties as the other person picks them up. We naturally allow people to become experts in areas, while we mostly ignore them as a part of our optimization.
However, the death of a spouse means that we are severed from those parts of our shared thinking that, though external to us, we’ve come to depend upon. It’s as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves – and we have. We wouldn’t admonish someone whose physical pain involuntarily caused tears in their eyes as we do with those who grieve at an emotional loss.
Loss of Past
One of the odd things that happens is that people become severed from their past as well as their present and future. It makes no sense that the loss of someone would create a tear in the past, but it does. Suddenly, the places that you loved to visit together lose their luster. There’s the twinge of pain as you feel the loss more prominently. It makes you doubt that you were ever happy there. How could this be a place of joy when I feel so bad now?
This doubt is even more pervasive as it challenges you about the very nature of reality. Was what you believed was your history even real or was it a fantasy that you conjured up in your mind. How is someone to know?
Navigating through the waters of grief, it’s important to hold on to the memories and not let the waves of doubt erase them in a blind attempt to ease the pain. We must cherish the times that we had with those we’ve lost as a testimony to their life and to our commitment to continue their light in the world. If you’re navigating through grief, the pictures, recordings, and creations of the loved one are precious. In the end, it allows A Grief Observed to be a grief shared – and that makes it lighter.