After a life of bachelorhood, C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) married American writer Joy Davidman, the love of his life. Davidman died of cancer four years after their marriage and left Lewis completely bereft. A Grief Observed is about her death and Lewis’s loss.
I see the rowan berries reddening and I don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. […] What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.
A Grief Observed is a deeply personal account that addresses the physical nature of grief, the loss of something we love, and the empty space that exists when they leave.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
Echoing something Helen Macdonald wrote in H Is for Hawk when she lost her father, Lewis found not only do we suffer grief, but we also suffer awareness of grief. This horrible compounding nature of sorrow and gritty self-awareness makes coping even more difficult.
Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.
It is that awareness of grief that makes A Grief Observed so utterly compelling. It is entitled as if C.S. Lewis is looking at grief removed from himself, which anyone in grief can attest to, is extremely difficult. Grief—like depression—becomes who we are, not something we are going through. As we step in and out of that person in grief, as Lewis does, all that we know and have trusted becomes fragile.
Underneath the grievance, or perhaps consuming it, is Lewis’s deeply devoted but fragile faith, his questions about God, and his struggle to accept not being.1
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon up as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms.
Lewis’s A Grief Observed is articulate and never sentimental. Lewis’s emotion and sorrow are deeply felt alongside Joan Didion’s more intellectualized account of her daughter’s untimely death (is death ever timely?) and her husband’s sudden death. Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers, a heart-binding prose-poem on exactly what Lewis faces: the abstract post-death emptiness. In Porter’s imaginative work, that emptiness is filled by a crow.
To assign grief to death alone is to ignore that the imagined loss of something—especially oneself—can be as painful as real loss. Read more in Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, a look at the last moments of great writers like Susan Sontag, or Robert McCrum’s study of our death anxiety.