A Grief Observed

C.S. Lewis, who is probably best known for writing The Chronicles of Narnia, was born in Belfast on this day in 1898.  He was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and held prestigious positions in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England.

Books on grief have been part of both my professional and personal reading for many years now and C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, first published in 1961, stands out as one of the classics in terms of its many insights into a personal journey with grief.

C.S. Lewis

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes about his feelings after the death of  Joy Davidman, an American poet, to whom he was married for four intensely happy years ~ 1956-1960.

This is a very slim book, with just 64 pages, but it touches the very core of C.S. Lewis’ grief and his grappling with the new reality in which he finds himself. As a non-religious type, I was a little reluctant to read the book as it presents as if it is largely about C.S. Lewis’ debate with God in the face of his loss.

However, as well as offering a perspective on how people with strong religious beliefs may feel let down by God, A Grief Observed provides many beautifully written and insightful passages about losing and loss. Each time I read the book, I seem to find new insights that resonate with me, but these are the two that always stands out:

One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment that comes. All manner of ups and downs. Many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst.

It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night! ….

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There’s something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. As I’ve already noted, not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But it isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.

Although written over fifty years ago by a man who died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy,  A Grief Observed is a book which I see as being honest, insightful and strangely comforting.