Life changed forever for me and my family on June 19, 2015, when tragedy struck suddenly. In the aftermath, I turned to an old mentor. In the ashes of our loss and dismal emptiness, I opened A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis. The first line: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
What followed was a composite pondering of one man’s bereavement upon the death of his wife and his accompanying intense grief and depression, beginning with a fusillade against the Faith he had embraced and defended for decades. It had been 11 years since I first read Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and since then, I thought I had settled matters of my faith. I thought that, no matter what I would encounter, that faith would remain impenetrable. I imagine Lewis felt much the same way when, on July 13, 1960, his wife succumbed to cancer. He began putting his thoughts down on paper, what he called “jottings.”
Clive Staples Lewis was reared in the British-Irish code of chivalry, personal honor, commitment, respect for tradition, and pride in ancestry. As a Southerner with an Anglo-Celtic background myself, I know something of this code of bravery and manliness; it weighs heavily when times of adversity hit.
The first segment of A Grief Observed was unvarnished, raw. The Christian apologist is unmasked, uncensored, and stripped of pretense. Written in the immediate aftermath of his tremendous loss, when his feelings overwhelmed his convictions, he considered it so dark and unsettling that, when he decided to offer it for publication, he went to lengths to conceal his authorship, using pseudonyms for himself (N.W. Clerk) and his wife (H).
A Grief Observed was written late in Lewis’s life. He had already developed an enormous reputation as a Christian apologist and thinker. When we put ourselves out there, so to speak, as Christians, we effectively place ourselves under a microscope. When crisis strikes, people are looking to see how we handle it. Is our faith real? Are we genuine? Are we merely a fair-weather follower, content only so long as things go our way? After our own tragedy, I remember friends expressing to me such sentiments as, “This is only going to strengthen your testimony,” and “Your children will be greatly served by your example.” While I was very appreciative of these comments at the time (and even more so now), they also served to increase the pressure on me to be the kind of Christian I was expected to be. I think Lewis felt this pressure.
Lewis’s stepson described this work as Lewis “try[ing] to make some sense of the whirling chaos that was assaulting his mind.” At the time I was reading it, I was in a struggle to be obedient to Christ while trying to come to grips with how on earth my situation could be worked out for good in His plan. No matter how strong one’s faith, a sudden loss of such magnitude is a demanding challenge. Here, then, was the great Christian apologist and defender of the Faith expressing doubts and insecurities; his attitude toward death was modified by the intensity of his pain. Lewis later conceded that his thoughts were beyond his ability to control them, and they came rolling off his pen.
Meanwhile, where is God? . . . go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
Lewis was having his faith tested. And he was not prepared for the severity of the test. A master of analogy, he likened it to the degree to which one might trust in the strength of a rope, according to the circumstances in which we are using it:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? . . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.
Lewis wrote of the social isolation one can feel when grieving. “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me,” he explained. He felt the social awkwardness palpable when well-intentioned people attempted to interact with him:
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. . . . Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.
Even within a family, individual grieving can take so many different forms that it produces a degree of conflict among its members. Lewis turned to writing because, he wrote, “I must have some drug, and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now. By writing it all down (all?—no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it.” He felt as if he was blocked from communicating with the children about their mother:
I cannot talk to the children about her. The moment I try, there appears on their faces neither grief, nor love, nor fear, nor pity, but the most fatal of all non-conductors, embarrassment. They look as if I were committing an indecency. They are longing for me to stop.
Yes. I remember trying to share my feelings of anguish with friends. I usually came away feeling I had driveled on entirely too long. Am I burdening them? They don’t know what to say. They cannot really know how I feel. What can they say? Here I am unloading on them, throwing this problem in their lap, too, when they cannot be expected to offer a reasonable solution to my woes. These thoughts further entrenched the feeling of helplessness and caused me to retreat within myself.
There was a back-and-forth evident within Lewis’s sentences. He was trying to work things out. At one point, he writes, “For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appall me.” At another: “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” At multiple points, when attempting to understand how a just God allows such pain to His children, the writer describes Him as “The Cosmic Sadist,” only to follow it up with such reactions as, “Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense?”
Lewis delved into the physiological conflict apparent in the sufferer:
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 this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.
He acknowledges his outbursts as venting, and later stresses the unreliability of such expressions when gauging one’s true feelings. The heightened state of emotionalism that produced them distorts the reasonableness of reality and truth.
For me, reading those outbursts from my mentor was very cathartic. Here was something I could relate to in my own time of grief and loss. Here was someone I trusted, admired, and consulted who was not telling me what I should be thinking (at least not initially), but unmasking for me what I was already thinking.
Inevitably, the chronicle does make its way to a turning point. Lewis later warned a friend that although the book “ends in faith [it] raises all the blackest doubt en route.” Lewis biographer Alister McGrath summarized Lewis’s trajectory: “The assault had been extreme, and the testing severe. Yet its outcome was a faith which, like gold, had passed through the refiner’s fire.”
Just as I had needed the sympathetic link to Lewis’s regression into anger and despair, I also required the road to recovery Lewis provides in the second part of the book—the transition from mourning to remembering. Lewis finally begins to “make sense of it.” He finds the door to God no longer bolted shut: “Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity [to receive].” He expounds on the purpose of the trials of life.
Some of life’s losses are, of course, less difficult to bear than others. But some losses (the death of a beloved, a horrible betrayal, a severe physical injury, the loss of a vocation, a scurrilous attack on one’s reputation) are apt to change us forever.
We are all faced with the task of “getting over it.” But Lewis relates that some losses are permanent, like an amputation rather than a routine surgery. “To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another.” An amputee may eventually heal, continuous pain may stop, he may regain strength and learn how to “get by” on an artificial leg. In that sense he may be said to have “gotten over it.” But
he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed.
The final chapter of A Grief Observed is Lewis’s resignation to his own limitations as a mortal man. (“I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.”) The creature must yield to the ultimate Sovereign. Sorrow is “not a state but a process.” The recovery was painful and involved relapses. And, for Lewis, there was no “sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.” God never left him. He was there from start to finish, even when He seemed absent—when Lewis thought He had slammed the door in his face and barred it.
Coming to terms with his situation, Lewis put it this way:
When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer. But a rather special sort of “No answer.” It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”
As one of my favorite hymns puts it, “We’ll understand it all by and by.”
God tells us through Saint Peter that we have an “inheritance incorruptible” reserved for us in heaven. We are told to rejoice and keep this in mind through the seasons of heaviness and trials in this earthly life. The faith of a Christian shall be “tried with fire,” so that it “might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:4-7).
Recorded toward the end of his book is a powerful moment when Lewis makes an assessment of himself, his faith, and the benefits that have come from this trial. “How far have I got?” he asks himself. His conclusive answer: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”
My pastor often talks about the importance of mentorship. He recently asked at the beginning of a sermon, “Who here has been discipled?” Usually we think of discipleship when regarding a newcomer to the Faith, while mentoring is what is meant by a one-on-one relationship where the senior assists the junior. Both are extremely important in the maturation and nurturing of the individual Christian. Saint Paul told Timothy, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
It does us well to express our gratitude to the disciplers and mentors who help guide us on our path toward eternal life. It is fitting we acknowledge their profound influence. It is necessary as we get farther along that we try to take up that role in the lives of others. Christianity is not an intuitive religion. We have comrades and fellow soldiers who march beside us and assist us along our way to our final destination. They are the ones to whom we turn in times of doubt, adversity, celebration, joy, confusion, questioning—and grief. They lead us to Christ and help us along the path of sanctification. Thank God for them.
And I thank God for Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis. I am tempted to say I am thankful even though I never knew him. But that is not quite correct. I never met him. But I certainly have known him.