Friday, August 5

C.S. Lewis, Joy and A Grief Observed

A few months ago, I lost someone very near and dear to my heart - my Grandmother. Never one to miss a beat, she was born on Christmas day, and she passed away on Good Friday! My Grandmother and I have been very close all of my life; I was her first grand-child, and we spent hours upon hours together as I grew up. It is well-known that we often took several hours to talk on the phone about our day, about news, the current issues in my life (from middle school drama to high school romance, finances in college or discernment with the friars), and many other things. Needless to say, I was very, very close with my Grandma Merrie. As a result, her passing - as with any loss - has caused me to go through a lot of grieving. This has expressed itself in a myriad of ways, from sudden frustration and anger to an outburst of tears at a familiar smell, an uncovering of an old letter (she always wrote long letters to me) or disbelief - as when I first received the call. Grieving has most certainly been something I have experienced much more vividly now than any loss before. Therefore, I felt it was time to put my love for C.S. Lewis and his life and work to good use, and take the opportunity to look at how he coped with a major loss in his life, and what that meant for him. The following is the result of that exploration.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "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."[1] Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a Christian author, apologist and lay theologian. He had not always been a Christian, however. Lewis was part of a group called The Inklings, a group which J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, etc.) also belonged to. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and along with Hugo Dyson, another friend, Lewis eventually converted to Christianity although much to the chagrin of Tolkien, he joined the Church of England (Anglican Church) and not the Catholic Church. Lewis married American poet and writer Helen Joy Davidman Gresham in 1956. Tolkien did not fully approve of his friend's marriage as Joy had been married before, and was therefore a divorcee. Regardless, the two wed. According to his brother Warren, Lewis was initially attracted to Joy's intellectual prowess. He had not encountered a woman before who could match wits with him. She had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer; hence, Lewis knew beforehand that her time was limited.

At the time, the Church of England was not in the habit of performing marriage ceremonies for one who had been divorced, but Lewis' friend, Reverend Peter Bride, performed the ceremony at her hospital bed in March 1957 - the second ceremony, as the first in 1956 was a secret civil ceremony. Her cancer went into brief remission, and the couple lived together for four years, until her death in 1960. A Grief Observed, published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, is the written reflections of Lewis after the loss of his wife. In the introduction, his step-son Douglas points out that the title is A Grief Observed because it is not the perfect book that deals with grief, but one man's individual experience with grief. The work was later published under the name of C.S. Lewis, as he felt it was good for the reader to know who he was. About twenty years prior, Lewis had written The Problem of Pain, a remarkable work (as are the majority of his works) in which he examines theodicy. Theodicy is essentially the question and attempts at answering how a divine being could allow pain, suffering, and evil - something he struggled with as an apologist. In A Grief Observed, however, while his reasoning and logical deductions are present, there is a kind of internal struggle between logic and emotion, a bit like Spock from the Star Trek franchise.

Oddly enough, several of Lewis' friends recommended the book to him while it was still under the pseudonym as a way for him to deal with the loss of Joy. In these reflections, the candidness and openness about his feelings makes us sympathize for Lewis. His books - such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain - illustrate the rhetoric of one of the most brilliant men in the twentieth century, and A Grief Observed shows what happens when you take a man's emotional balance away, something also very relatable. In his reflections, Lewis struggled with theodicy once again, and as he was focused on the emotional aspects, found it difficult to simply reason away. For example, he attempts to address the comments of friends and family who try to help him in his grief. In reaction to the comment, "she is in God's hands," he says, "But if so, she was in God's hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why?"[2] He faces doubt more than once, but notes that he will not become an atheist, "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. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like...".[3]

From the outset, Lewis is facing depression. He does not wish to talk with many people, he wonders why God gave him the desire of his heart only to painfully rip it away, and he struggles to find meaning once more. I initially faced a similar struggle once I returned to my Franciscan community to work and serve shortly after my Grandmother's funeral. Ultimately, Lewis finds meaning and begins to accept the "necessity of suffering" as outlined in The Problem of Pain, but the sting is too fresh at first, which is of course a deeply human and very understandable reaction. Essentially, by the end of A Grief Observed, Lewis has accepted the death of Joy (both literally and figuratively), having experienced both Depression and Acceptance - two important stages of the grieving process. He had always anticipated the event, but once it actually happened, he had difficult accepting the loss. As a consequence, Lewis goes through a kind of withdrawal from God and society around him. Also, he faces the idea and memory of Joy. Lewis does not want his mental image of her to become the object of his love. He notes, "Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the [Joy] I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.... The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real [Joy] so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me."[4] I imagine this is how many feel after the loss of a loved one.

On a psychological and biological level, Lewis appears to experience several common symptoms of grief, such as the tightness of throat - he notes that he keeps swallowing, presumably to loosen the tightness - he has disturbed sleeping patterns, experiences fatigue as well as a loss of energy and strength. He is unable to concentrate on many things, with Joy always on his mind. He grows impatient with the many cliches he hears from friends and family, such as "there is no death" or "death doesn't matter." He wrote in response, "There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences. and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter.... She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?"[5] By this point, he has accepted the reality of the loss, and is able to work through his grief from there. He tries to adjust to his environment where she is no longer present, but writes that "I dread the moments when the house is empty."[6]

As a final point, Lewis does indeed go through several stages of general grief patterns, but experiences it differently in some ways given his background and worldview than others might. For example, in India, death is often a widely celebrated event, as it often marks the next phase of existence. Lewis' culture and personality - he was an intellectual giant and had a brilliant mind - came through in his grieving process. His religious background certainly had a heavy influence upon how he grieved, but he faced challenges in trying to reconcile faith and loss. His emotional honesty comes through as he describes his struggles, as well as his personality. The death of his wife was not sudden, and he may have previously "gone through the motions" during the four years that they were married in preparation for when he would lose her. Lewis had abundant social support, although as he notes some avoided him - not knowing what to say to him, but as the bereaved, along with several years of preparing for her death, Lewis is not unlike many men and women who go through similar stages. His reflections are also inspiring, and in many ways I can relate to his grief through my grieving over my Grandmother - demonstrating that it is deeply and truly human to struggle with loss and to experience - and observe - grief.

[1] Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperOne, 1994. 3. Print.
[2] Ibid., 27.
[3] Ibid., 7.
[4] Ibid., 18.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] Ibid., 3.

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