During my wife Roberta’s final days I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1961, 1996), knowing that I would soon (barring a dramatic miracle) endure what he described. Just recently I again read the book and wrote rather extensive personal reflections in a journal I’ve been keeping, indicating how his words help me cope with my inner pain, now seven months after her death. Lewis wrote, following the death of his wife, Joy, to help diffuse the sorrow he felt. His words more accurately describe what I’ve felt than anything I’ve read or can say. So in this issue of my “Reedings” I’ll try to explain why the book (and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, which I also discuss) is so valuable to me. Inasmuch as it is a collection of thoughts rather than a structured presentation, I’ll select and comment on passages that particularly spoke to me. Importantly, these words, for both Lewis and me, reflect a period of intense pain, not a final theological perspective.
In his “Introduction” to the book, Lewis’s step-son, Douglas Gresham, notes: “This book is a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane. It tells of the agony and the emptiness of a grief such as few of us have to bear, for the greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm the fortress” (p. xxvi). Neither Lewis nor I can gloss over the intense agony one feels when he loses the love of his life. Pious rhetoric fails in such moments. Jesus’ words on the Cross—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”—resonate more truthfully than “God is good, all the time”!
“Meanwhile, where is God?” Lewis wondered. “This is one of the most disquieting symptoms” (p. 5). Certainly God speaks to me through the Scripture, especially in the Psalms of lament, so He has been with me. Certainly He has spoken to me through books I’ve read—Peter Kreeft, Sheldon Vanauken, Lewis et al. And I’ve found the austerely intellectual arguments of Aquinas much more useful than the glib assurances of Guideposts magazine! He’s comforted me through music—Dean and Marcia Nelson gave me an Isaacs’ CD that I love. But if I’d hoped God would emotionally embrace and comfort me, such has not been the case. I’ve not experienced what some claim—a kind of sweet euphoria that sweeps away all sorrow. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (p. 25). However “triumphantly” others process grief, for me (and apparently Lewis too) it’s much more the “dark night of the soul” described by St. John of the Cross.
“What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had” (p. 30). This for me too is most difficult. My wife and I didn’t really pray for a “miracle” last summer—just a successful stem cell transplant that the doctor considered rather routine! Yet during the four years she battled the disease how sincerely she prayed, thanking God for the “healing” taking place in her body as she took the prescribed medications. We prayed. Others prayed. But neither transplants nor medications did more than temporarily drive into remission the multiple myeloma. I understand that God has no obligation to heal us! We both were surrendered to God’s will, whatever it might be (dying included). But it’s truly hard to pray or hope for much in the shadows of her passing.
“Kind people have said to me, ‘She is with God.’ In one sense that is most certain. She is, like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable” (p. 24). There is always a mysterious hidden ness to personality. Even while near me, Roberta was alluringly incomprehensible. Death simply magnifies that otherness. Yes, I knew her—and still feel I know her. Yet without her nearby she is (as Lewis says) “incomprehensible and unimaginable.” To be real, without the body, is something to believe, but not to fathom. But, as Lewis reasons, “If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook clouds of atoms for a person” (p. 28). Reductionistic materialism fails to support the reality of human consciousness. Mind must not be confused with molecular motion. In the words of a great neuroscientist, John Eccles, a Nobel Prize winner: “We are spiritual beings with souls in a spiritual world, as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world” (p. 29). Persons transcend things. Roberta was and is a person who was embodied for 67 years.
An unexpected consequence of his suffering, Lewis notes, is “the laziness of grief” (p. 5). Perhaps this is because: “Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable” (p. 28). “And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till now I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness” (p. 33). “The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away, but what will follow?” he wonders. “Just this apathy, this dead flatness? . . . . Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?” (p. 36).
Nor did I anticipate how listless one becomes in the wake of death. There’s a strange ennui, a disinterest in doing anything beyond necessary daily tasks. Like him, “I do all the walking I can, for I’d be a fool to go to bed not tired” (p. 60). After a lifetime of insatiable reading, I find myself picking up and laying down books in a few minutes. It’s actually a physical sensation, this lack of energy. And I, who routinely retired at 10:00 p.m., now stay up late and sleep late—reversing a lifelong pattern! I watch lots of videos and TV, finding it impossible to read much at night. In some ways I resolutely face reality, never pretending I’m just fine without her. I think I’m honest about the utter solitariness of my situation. And yet, there’s still much I do to evade the aching reality of her absence.
Lewis often wonders at the mysterious one-flesh nature of Christian marriage. Male and female are, by nature, somewhat at odds. “Marriage heals this. Jointly the two become fully human. ‘In the image of God created he them.’ Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes. And then one or other dies” (p. 49). There is a literal truth to this conjugal union that one realizes when the bond is broken and part of you departs. I need Roberta with me to be what I’m designed to be! But the union can never be total. “There’s a limit to the ‘one flesh.’ You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain” (p. 13). However close we were, only she knew the anguish of her disease. Only she suffered the interminable treatments. Only she knew the inescapable depression of unanswered prayers and failed procedures. She never complained, never seemed angry, rarely wept in my presence. “I had my miseries, not hers; she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine. We were setting out on different roads” (p. 13). Different roads: hers to Glory; mine to Gethsemane.
“If, as I can’t help suspecting,” Lewis says, “the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), 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 or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are ‘taken out of ourselves’ by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves through the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love” (p. 50). How helpful this is! To imagine that separation is but another step in the dance of love—a process divesting one of self-absorption while focusing (primarily through grief) upon the lover—is worth pondering.
Lewis also wondered about the sanctifying aspects Joy’s suffering, when “month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel while she wore it” (p. 42). “The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness” (43). He then compares God to a loving surgeon who insists on operating, at considerable pain to us, in order to ultimately heal. Nothing is more helpful (if hard to accept) than this: God wills our good—holiness; certain processes, sickness and death included—contribute to this good. Roberta’s suffering (and my current emotional trauma) are both part of becoming what God ultimately wills for us. Clinging to the hope rooted in this belief makes some of our sorrow palatable.
Implicit in the well-intended but usually unwelcome “how are you doing?” inquiries is the assumption that you must soon “get over” the loss of your loved one. As Lewis notes, “the words are ambiguous. To say a patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg cut off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get his strength back and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it” (p. 52). Lewis then notes the various things one continues to do—and continuously senses the loss of the limb. But some things are forever gone. “All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again” (p. 53). What powerful analogies Lewis employs! Many of us describe the loss of a spouse as an amputation. But only Lewis has the skill to flesh out the comparison so as to enable one to see this. In truth a major part of me is gone! I’m crippled by Roberta’s death. What I was for 44 years I’ll never be again. Inasmuch as I’m alive I assume a natural kind of healing is taking place. But it’s not a healing to my prior condition. It’s only a healing that will enable me to limp about. “I shall never be biped again.” How lamentably true.
“Still there’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under an obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness” (p. 53). Neither Lewis nor I could have anticipated this peculiar disposition. And both he (then) and I (now) suspect our deceased spouses disapprove! So why harbor such a feeling? “Partly, no doubt, vanity. We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in that huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job” (p. 53).
But, he perceptively continues, what really drives us to cling to our sorrow is mistaking symptom for reality. What we really cherish is the reality of a union that persists despite death. We want to preserve our marriage, forever. “If it hurts (and it certainly will) we accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. We don’t want to escape them at the price of desertion or divorce. . . . . We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don’t want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will be still married, still in love. Therefore we still will ache. But we are not—if we understand ourselves—seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better, so long as the marriage is preserved. And the more joy there can be in the marriage between the dead and the living, the better” (p. 543). Lewis then notes that Joy is closer to him as he remembers good times rather than when he grieves at her loss.
In time, Lewis sensed how rightly remembering his wife pointed him to God. He had no “good” pictures of his wife, but at times he thought of her as a sword, because of her sharp mind. At other times he compared her to a lush, nurturing garden. “Thus up from the garden to the Gardener, from the sword to the Smith. To the life-giving Life and the Beauty that makes beautiful” (p. 63). Fortunately I have many good pictures of Roberta, many taken on the trips she took while exploring the world. They are, in a sense, icons for me. And when I think of her as a homemaker, or as a craftsman, I see her busily engaged making beautiful wreaths and clothes. She was so gracious and loving. Remembering her I think of the Lord who made and redeemed her. And yet: “All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead” (p. 66). While I loved all the things Roberta did for me, I most deeply loved her. What I miss most is not the things she did (though I’m certainly handicapped without her cooking and housekeeping skills) but simply her presence. It’s her being I love.
Lewis interrogated himself, wondering if he loved Joy more than God, craved to see her more than Him in the hereafter. I too ponder this. My thoughts about heaven these days center largely on her. I know that without Christ all we hope for is vain. But in my heart I mainly long to be with her. Both Lewis and I know we must properly prefer God above all in order to attain our final end. So we ask: “Lord, are these your real terms? Can I meet H. again only if I learn to love you so much that I don’t care whether I meet her or not? Consider, Lord, how it looks to us” (p. 68). He then notes, as I often did while Roberta battled cancer, that “Just as if, on earth, I could have cured her cancer by never seeing her again, I’d have arranged to never see her again. I’d have had to. Any decent person would” (p. 69). To never see Roberta in order to obtain life for her would have been difficult but doable, I think. It would have been bearable because despite the absence there would still have been the assurance of her being alive and flourishing. Having said all this, however, if the Gospel is true and she’s alive and well, as never before, then I must be content with the knowledge that her being is ever sustained by the “One in whom we live and move and have our being.”
Describing one of his sudden awakenings to his late wife’s persisting presence, Lewis said: “It’s the quality of last night’s experience—not what it proves but what it was—that makes it worth putting down. It was incredibly unemotional. Just the impression of her mind momentarily facing my own, not ‘soul’ as we tend to think of soul. . . . . Not at all like a rapturous reunion of lovers. . . . . Not that there was any ‘message’—just intelligence and attention. No sense of joy or sorrow. No love even in our ordinary sense. No un-love. I had never in any mood imagined the dead as being so—well, so business-like. Yet there was an extreme and cheerful intimacy. An intimacy that had not passed through the senses at all” (p. 73).
Like Lewis, I’ve had a few powerful moments wherein I acutely sensed Roberta’s presence. For instance, in the early hours of March 15, I suddenly said “Hi, honey,” simply acknowledging her very real being there at that moment. I wasn’t dreaming. Admittedly, when one lies awake in the night there’s a certain semi-consciousness to it all. But I knew, in a powerful way, that she was there. (One of the mysterious developments since her death is my referring to her as “Honey,” a word I never once used while she lived! I just began, almost immediately following her death, to refer to her thusly!) Lewis aptly describes what I sensed—no emotion at all, just a clear recognition of what is. For me it was less an awareness of her “mind” than her “being.” She was mysteriously present (here, or there, but somewhere!) and I spoke to her. My mood, like Lewis’s, was “cheerful” inasmuch as I just felt good to know she was there. This all happened in a brief moment—one of those precious moments of assurance that I too easily forget when I lapse into my gloomy times.
“Wherever it came from, “Lewis continued, “it has made a sort of spring cleaning in my mind. The dead could be like this; sheer intellects” (p. 74). He found he didn’t need emotional comfort. “The intimacy was complete—sharply bracing and restorative too—without it” (p. 74). Rather than being the nebulous, ethereal spirits portrayed in New Age (deeply Gnostic) materials, the departed are: “Above all, solid. Utterly reliable. Firm. There is no nonsense about the dead” (p. 75). Indeed! How good it is to imagine (as I endeavor to do) our departed loved ones as the substantial figures portrayed in Lewis’s incomparable The Great Divorce. As is evident from this review, C.S. Lewis’s words have blessed me as I have observed an almost identical grief to that described in A Grief Observed.
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Similar, in many ways, to A Grief Observed is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1987). Wolterstorff is one of several world-class philosophers matriculated by Calvin College half-a-century ago, ultimately teaching at Yale University. This brief meditation was written following the death of his 25 year-old son, Eric, who fell while climbing a mountain in Germany. “If he was worth loving,” the father writes, “he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides” (p. 5).
Not to be avoided or repressed, grief is a healthy reaction to the loss of a precious person. No love, no grief; much love, much grief. “So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it. I do not try to dis-own it” (p. 5). Though it may be difficult to own it “redemptively,” it must, inasmuch as one is honest, be owned. As we remember we lament, for it’s “a part of life.” Indeed: “Every lament is a love-song” (p. 6). Wolterstorff stresses the centrality of remembering in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Consequently, we must strive to rightly remember our loved ones! To those who counsel forgetting and getting on with life, we must resolutely reply: remembering is a way of loving, and remembering one who has died means mourning.
“Nothing fills the void of his absence. He’s not replaceable” (p. 32). Though Wolterstorff had four other children, it was as if he lost his only son because there was only one Eric. “There’s a hole in the world now” (ibid). The loss of a being’s presence creates a void. The loss of a person creates an absolute void. “But please: don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic” (p. 34). It’s in fact impossible to exaggerate its evil. It carries with it the loss of all that’s good. Yet it must be stated that grief is episodic rather than constant. The dark moments easily overwhelm the rest of one’s day. It’s easy to overstate—and thus indulge in self-pity—the devastation one feels. But it’s still devastating.
After wrestling with dark doubts, C.S. Lewis realized that “It was allowed to one [Jesus Christ], we are told, and find I can now believe again, that he has done vicariously whatever can be so done” (Grief Observed, p. 44). Out of his despair, Lewis finally found comfort in Christ. While Roberta was dying I found solace solely in remembering that the Son of God had also suffered and died—the absolutely best Person was not exempt from sin’s penalty. Thank God for Gethsemane and Calvary, for only Christ’s suffering comforts us who suffer. As Lewis said, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive god.’ Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, he didn’t. He crucified Him” (p. 28). If God Himself suffered and died, I could not insist Roberta not!
Like Lewis (and Job of old), Nicholas Wolterstorff finally found his way to a certain equilibrium. It was not in a philosophical position, though he is one of the world’s finest philosophers. He found that only in the Cross, where one sees the Son of God suffer and die, is there real consolation. Our tears and sobs are legitimate and good. “Blessed are they who mourn.” And when (in God’s good time) the tears no longer blind us we can at last look up and see Jesus, there is a promised blessedness in mourning.