riting the book A Grief Observed was the one therapy that helped C.S. Lewis cope following the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman (“H.” in the book). Here C.S. Lewis–Atlanta Teaching Fellow and apologist, Jana Harmon, shares some insights on this great classic work of Lewis.
Intense emotional pain. It changes the landscape of our minds. It moves the ground upon which we stand. It brings clouds, obscuring the once-clear view. The heart overrides, plowing through the once-fertile rows of contentment, happiness, clarity, and peace, and leaves a dry, parched, disrupted soul in its wake. It causes us to question the very core of our beliefs, the Person in whom we placed our trust. Is God really all that good, all that powerful? Couldn’t He have prevented this pain? Is God there? Does God care? Why do I feel only overwhelming silence?
C.S. Lewis was not immune to the overwhelming grief that accompanied the mourning of his young love in later life. His erudite argument in The Problem of Pain lay still, lifeless against his raging sorrow. In faithful manner, he questioned and agonized through his pen. It was meant to be a private, honest reflection of his passionate struggle, but its value was too great to remain for an audience of one. For such is the common arduous experience of man, even for the most faithful of believers. Value is found in authentic company of the bereaved. Published first under a pseudonym to preserve Lewis’s anonymity, it was later printed posthumously under his given name.
Lewis soberly moves us through his journey of grief.
The first stop: Great love and great loss. Great loss and great grief. Anger. Distance. Raw emotion. Despair. Pain. “Satan’s corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved.”1 According to stepson Douglas Gresham,
It almost seem(ed) cruel that her death was delayed long enough for him to grow to love her so completely that she filled his world as the greatest gift that God had ever given him, and then she died and left him alone in a place that her presence in his life had created for him.
C. S. Lewis . . . too fell head-long into the vortex of whirling thoughts and feelings and dizzily groped for support and guidance deep in the dark chasm of grief.2
Lewis was in a trough of despair and vacillating emotion. The mind tries to reassure the heart that all is well, then a sudden earthquake of pain erupts any and all sense of well-being: “a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.”3 The mind can go only so far to convince the heart in the way of suffering. In this acute phase of loss, emotions rule the day. Desperate longings for the one who is gone or the One who should be ever present are met with empty return. In their absence, we idealize the absentee loved one and denigrate the evasive Lover of our souls, questioning the cruelty of God’s love. We find the lost one’s presence everywhere and cannot find God’s presence anywhere. We move through the day with despondency weighty, slow, dismantled from our normal passions. Death comes. Death matters. It is the great separator.
The second stop: Less than a month after his loss of H., Lewis begins the slow process of imagining their lives, of its “otherness,” of its profound intimacy. He realizes the vanity of his fleeting impression of her, his self-created images. He wants to press beyond sentimentality to face soberly the reality of her person, of her death, and the fullness of his loss. Death is the ultimate test of belief. Is religion only for those who cannot face reality? The curative opiate? Lewis would have none of that. The past is the past. Death is final. He has no place for the supposed comforts and answers and rhetoric of religion. He wonders where the “good God” is in the midst of his incomprehensible pain. He questions whether it is “rational to believe in a bad God.”4 He chooses to face unbearable reality. He, like his lost loved one, would rather “have truth at any price.”5
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