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Most Tender Courage of a Grief Examined
on 17 July 2007
"A Grief Observed" is just that, an observation by immersion, recorded in a journal by C.S. Lewis with the great courage it requires to open one's heart in complete vulnerability when in its most raw state. It begins with a listing of physical symptoms of grief - the sense of fear, or something much like fear, in the pit of the stomach, the yawning of an expanding void, the constant swallowing, as if trying to digest and wash away this immense emotion so difficult to process. From the physical, Lewis moves in closer and with more intimate observation on this thing called grief, struggling to cope and understand. Struggling to survive. Struggling to be transformed and healed.
To understand this particular struggle, one must understand the love Lewis has lost in the death of his wife. Theirs was a short but meaningful union, one begun as a friendship that only later, after the vows were taken, moved into a love known only by true partners. Rather than modern day reversals - in which lust is too often mistaken for love, and a friendship often does not enter the union at all, and so quickly crumbling without basis to build upon - this couple has the order right. Only true friends can blossom into love. Love grows from the intimacy of knowledge of another being, and this is what this couple has enjoyed, why the one left behind now knows such immense grief. Lewis's grief is deep and now resonates for the remainder of his own life as a constant companion where his wife once was.
Few can express in words so well what, in some variation, all of us feel. Lewis is a master with words. His bring healing - to himself, and to those of us who many years later are still graced with his words in our own struggles of loss.
"The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything. But no, that is not quite accurate. There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can't avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H's lover. Now it's like an empty house."
Lewis talks of favorite places, visiting them again, but now without her, and finds his ache does not increase or diminish with place; he aches everywhere. His wife was like a lens through which all places, and all life, was processed for him. He talks of his loneliness, and yet simultaneously, his inability and often lack of desire, to communicate with others about his grief. And still, he says, he longs for the company and comfort of others. If only, he writes, they would go on about their own business and their own conversations around him without directly including him. Just be near him.
A large part of Lewis's struggle, as a man with a deep Christian faith, is his need to understand death and God's role in it. Indeed, much of this slim journal is about a man nearly losing his faith, or walking away from it, and then not only returning to it, but returning to a faith strengthened by its testing.
"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 you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be - or so it seems - welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you feel? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside...
"Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him..."
Who of us have not asked such questions in times of suffering? Lewis articulates all our doubts, surely. During any kind of pain or loss, and not just in terms of death, it is human nature to cry out to God and shake a fist at the heavens, daring, wondering, questioning, demanding, even threatening, crying out for answers and response, often feeling like we get none. Lewis describes what answers he does find, what responses he eventually feels, once he is ready for it, over the coming days of his observed and processed grief.
Yet one can never return to what was. Rant and carry on as one must, but there is no return. The dead remain dead, the living, still living. "Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared. I was wrong to say the stump was recovering from the pain of amputation. I was deceived because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one. Still, there are the two enormous gains... turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to H., it no longer meets that vacuum..."
Change is gradual, Lewis writes, and subtle in its progression and healing. One day, you notice you are coping better. Not quite sure when the transition happened, but it has. He is connected with both love and God in a new and changed way, faith restored, and he makes it clear that he will from now on be a man "with an amputated limb" where his wife once was, forever crippled by her loss, yet he has (re)new(ed) reason to live. In terms of his faith, he has come to realize that one cannot be a Christian in order to be reunited with one's loved ones after death, for faith does not work that way. Faith is about union with God, first and foremost. Have an ulterior motive of reunion with family, and the connection with God instantly crumbles. Yet through his grief, Lewis acknowledges another life lesson learned, and thus a new intimacy with God. And it is in reaching this new place of peace that he realizes, remembers, the peace he witnessed in his loved wife's eyes in dying. It is, in the end, his greatest act of love, then, to let her go, and to go on.