5 Lessons from C. S. Lewis’ Grief Observed

“Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue.” —C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I never wanted to have this in common with C.S. Lewis. I never wanted to major in suffering.

Yet I am here, and she is there. She is resplendent in memorandum. . . and I cannot write fast enough. And I am left holding a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. As Lewis observes his particular grief, I too observe my own. C.S. Lewis got it.

I would rather have other things in common with the man. I would have much rather been an “Inkling”—instead we are widowers observing grief.

I believe Lewis understood that one cannot simply skirt grief. Not without consequences anyway. Grief cannot be skipped over as one would skip over the fast kid in a game of “Duck, Duck, Goose.” No, rather, it seems as though grief is such-a-one whom demands to have a day of reckoning, be it now, be it later, it matters not so much. Be that as it may, it almost behooves the mourner to ride directly through the tempest of grief; keep on pedaling. Lewis himself writes, “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?” (33).

I started this short book several weary years ago. I had started a book club at church and chose C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed because I wanted my people to walk the valley of the shadow of death before death rapped at their doors. My Resplendent Bride was diagnosed with cancer before we finished chapter 2. Over the next twenty months, I would pick up this slender book of terror and read a paragraph or two, only to set it down again because I never wanted to understand what this man was writing about, and the possibility of understanding ebbed and flowed as that fox cancer raged and retreated, raged and retreated.

The Lord took her home on the third day of May. Perhaps God told her nothing would ever hurt her again. I do not know all the words he speaks to new arrivals, but I do take solace in the truth that nothing will ever hurt her again. Lewis writes, “I had my miseries, not hers; she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age-of mine. ” (13).

The gospel of Jesus Christ has sustained, maintained, and supported me all this time.  My solace is in his truth.

But it is farce to claim hope in Christ makes one immune to the sheer pain of life under the sun.  I have not found hope in Christ to be mutually exclusive to the feeling of bereavement.

As spring bloomed outside The Hermitage, winter set in inside.

The lingering challenge for the widower is to somehow fill the void left by the dissolution of all the loving, all the care-taking, and the family unit itself.

So it was that I once again picked up this slender volume, and it was there within the pages of A Grief Observed that I was surprised to find a friend in C.S. Lewis.

He gets it.

Few do, and for that I am thankful.

I have found C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed to be helpful to the widow or widower in five ways.

1. In  A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis does not make a false dichotomy between hope in Christ and mourning over searing loss.

Lewis accomplishes this feat by allowing heavy sorrow to hang on his pages longer than others dare. Lewis does not seem to be in any hurry to provide the “Sunday School” answer so many follow up their condolences with. Some folks are born with Congenital Insensitivity To Pain, a condition wherein one cannot feel pain. This is a troubling ailment because our bodies warn us that things have gone awry such as “You stepped on a hornet’s nest” or, “The Sun is burning away your epidermis” or, “This machine you paid to be baked in is burning away your epidermis” through the sensation of pain.

Now, how shall the slow rending of the one flesh once again in two not hurt (Gen. 2:24)? Widowerhood is not the “conscious uncoupling” actress Gwyneth Paltrow euphemistically described her recent divorce as.

To be widowed is to be torn asunder. Sometimes the hurting need to hurt.

2.  A Grief Observed, seeks to answer the question, “Can God still be good when He hurts us so?”

My family was dissolved by death.  God is sovereign over both life and death.  Open Theists as well as some other theological traditions will not be too keen on this truth, but the Bible is.

Psalm 139:16 states, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”

Ecclesiastes 7:17 and 3:1-2 indicate that there are times appointed for all to live and die.  If so, then surely it is God who is the divine scheduler?

And shall we forget that it was God who drove and barred man from the tree of life growing in the Garden of Eden lest man steal immortality just as he had stolen knowledge?

Genesis 3:22-23

Then the LORD God said, ”Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever– “therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The New Testament informs us all flesh is destined to die someday:

Matthew 4:16, “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

The author of Hebrews argues that death is “appointed for man” (9:27).

So it is, and so it shall always be: God is Lord over both thanatos and zoe. Herein lies the rub:

  • God has dissolved my family by death.
  • The ruin of that which remains are great.
  • And, I love him.

Partner—GCD—450x300Lewis writes, “Is it rational to believe in a bad God?  Anyway, in a God so bad as all that?  The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?  I think it is, if nothing else, too anthropomorphic” (30).

Lewis goes on to write,

Feelings, and feelings, and feelings.  Let me try thinking instead.  From the rational point of view, what new factor has H.’s death introduced into the problem of the universe?  What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe?  I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily.  I would have said that I had taken them into account.  I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness.  We were even promised sufferings.  They were part of the programme.  We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn, and I accepted it.  I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for.  Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.  Yes; but shout it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this?  No.  and it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern.  The case is too plain.  If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards.  The faith which ‘took these things into account was not faith but imagination.  The taking them into account was not real sympathy.  If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came”  (36-37).

The question Lewis is wrestling with is whether God is a divine veterinarian or a divine vivisector (in other words one whose cutting is aimed to heal, or one whose cutting is motivated by sadism)?

“And I must surely admit — H. would have forced me to admit is a few passes — that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better.  And only suffering could do it.  But then the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal vivisector becomes an unnecessary hypothesis” (38).

“Of course the cat will growl and spit at the operator and bit him if she can.  But the real question is whether he is a vet or a vivisector.  Her bad language throws no light on it one way or another.  and I can believe He is a vet when I think of my own suffering” (40).

Lewis believed that a good God only hurts for a greater good in the Christian’s life. This notion frees the Christian from having to use lame circular arguments to defend God from that which is plain. God is sovereign. God is good. I hurt. All three are true.

3. In  A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis rightly observes that grief can lead to laziness.

Lewis writes,

“And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief.  Except at my job — where the machine seems to run on much as usual — I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth? They say an unhappy man wants distractions — something to take him out of himself. Only as a dog — tired man wants an extra blanket on a cold night; he’d rather lie there shivering than get up and find one. It’s easy to see why the lonely become untidy, finally, dirty and disgusting” (5).

Lewis’ observation on this point is useful for the widow/widower in that knowing and naming the temptation helps us to not only fight the temptation but to recognize it as it slowly encroaches upon us.

Those of us in bereavement must continue to take care of ourselves. We must try to eat right, exercise, keep house, do laundry, and for the sake of our fellow man, shower. We must continue to stimulate our minds even though it hurts to not be able to share new things with our cherished one. We must endeavor by God’s grace to work at our vocation and hobbies, because whether we find the joy in it all at the moment: we still live.

Work is the antidote to the temptation to amuse ourselves with the specter of time travel as remedy to regret. There is no redemption in regret.

4. In  A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis warns the widow or widower that they may be treated as the harbinger of death.

“An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not.  I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some funk it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or the other of us must some day be as he is now’” (10-11).

Lewis’ words ring true.

  • The widow/widower, especially young ones, remind all the marrieds of the dread truth that there is a 50% chance that this, all this, is coming their way, someday, sooner or later.
  • Nobody knows what to say. The friend does not know. The bereaved does not know.

Furthermore, in the absence of anything to say the things which are said tend to get under the widower’s skin.

People will ask variations of, “How you holding up?” or, “How are you doing?” and let us know forget, “How is your heart?”

Muscle, grit, and pumping are certainly not acceptable answers, but regardless of the answer there are those who are never satisfied that your answers are truthful unless you cry all over them.

Not likely.

The widower suddenly finds himself in a situation where every person with the capability to pass wind through their vocal cords in his general vicinity now places themselves in a position of authority over him for his own good. If a question is asked it must be answered to any and all’s satisfaction, or he shall risk a raised eye brow and the ever quizzical, “How are you really doing?”

Everyone is Barbara Walters.

Shall everyone presume to be both inquisitor and confessor?

And all this in the name of “community”?

Widower. . . They may love you, and it is a terrible fate to love someone who is hurt and to have nothing to say by way of making the dreadful affair better. Widower, I know it is tedium because you don’t know what to say either. But grief is no excuse to be a tool. Nor is grief an excuse to be an over analytical fool. This isn’t Dawson’s Creek. . . and your friends didn’t kill her. They’re just trying to help.

Those who are suffering from grief must be aware that they may be much more easily annoyed than they once were. As the movie Swing Kids says, “Put your glasses on.” Your friends simply wish to help, and they are suffering too: for they cannot help you, and they probably love whomever you lost as well.

5. In  A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis takes Heaven back from the family reunion and returns it to the Glory of God.

Heaven does not primarily exist for me to see my Resplendent Bride again. Everything, and I mean everything in me wants to see Danielle again. It is a visceral need. A couple of days ago I teared up as I brought her pills to the pharmacy for disposal. I miss her so much that I didn’t even want to be parted with her pills.

Yes, I am damaged in every which way.

But, heaven is about Jesus.

Heaven is about the glory of God.

Anything less is idolatry.

From the talk I hear at funerals I am fearful that people are giving God lip service in order to get what they want from him, namely, an eternal family reunion.

Almost as though we would approach God and use his throne like a friend’s lake house. “Hello there! God, we’d like to use your house for this thing. . . you’re. . . not going to be there, right?” Lewis writes,

“Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him?  But then of course I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road.  If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all.  That’s what was really wrong with all those popular pictures of happy reunions ‘on the further shore’; not the simple-minded and very earthly images, but the fact that they make an End of what we can get only as a by-product of the true End” (68).

Lewis goes on to write something that is helpful for the widows and widowers who have read Matthew 22:30, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

“Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet.  We shall see that there never was any problem” (71).

So say we all.

I recommend A Grief Observed for the bereaved, as well as those who have a 50/50 shot of standing in my ever so scuffed dress shoes.

Evan Welcher is senior pastor of First Christian Church in Glenwood, Iowa. Husband of the lovely Danielle. Evan graduated with a B.S. in Bible from Emmaus Bible College in 2005. His goal in ministry is to stir up love for Jesus Christ by the giving of great care and fidelity to the teaching of the Scriptures. He blogs at EvanWelcher.com. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanWelcher

Originally published at EvanWelcher.com. Used with permission.