C. S. Lewis

A Grief Observed

“I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

After a life of bachelorhood, C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898 – November 22, 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.

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met H. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. then comes the sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.

A Grief Observed is a deeply personal account that addresses the physical nature of grief, the embarrassment of being grieved around others, and the empty space that persists when someone we love dies.

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.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it? Merely confirm the monotonous tread-mill march of the mind round one subject? But what am I to do?

It is that layered anxiety 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.

Lydia Davis' "The Dog Hair" from Can't & Won't in the Examined Life Library.
“The Dog Hair” taken from Lydia Davis’ short-short story collection Can’t and Won’t.

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.

The writer’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 the 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.

I sat alone in the living room wondering what to do. Shuffling around, waiting for shock to give way, waiting for any kind of structured feeling to emerge from the organizational fakery of my days. I felt hung-empty.

From Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing With Feathers

Do Things Exist Where They Are Buried
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

The most powerful lines in a slim volume full of emotional punches are these:

It’s not true that I’m always thinking of H. Work and conversation make that impossible. But the times when I’m not are perhaps my worst.

For then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss…I see the rowan berries reddening and I don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember.

Then I remember. The never-ending consciousness of grief.

Joan Didion admitted she felt something similar when she lost her daughter. We can forget the active thought that someone died, but we cannot shrug off the emotion of grief.

The emotion pulls us back to the thought. And then I remember.

C. S. Lewis Illustration © The Examined Life