I’ll just say right off that this was a book that inspired a movie. It is called Shadowlands and if you haven’t seen it, you may be missing one of Sir Anthony Hopkins finest performances to date. He plays Clive Staples Lewis and does it so well that I’ve had trouble not associating him with the real Lewis ever since.
A Grief Observed is a small book. It isn’t long and it’s easy to read in like, a day. Or an hour, even. I thumb through it when I’m feeling depressed and misunderstood and memorize the lines. It is made up of journal entries that C.S. Lewis wrote after his wife died of cancer in 1956. They had been married only four years, but for Lewis, a confirmed old bachelor living with his equally confirmed old bachelor brother, wrapped in his intellectual, academic world of Oxford, I imagine that love coming to him so late in his life must have given him a profound transformation. His grief-stricken journal assures us that it did.
(When I was young I often lamented the fact that I was not a guy since my dream was to grow up and hang with Tolkien and Lewis and discuss literature. I wanted to sit with them at their pub and smoke a pipe and talk in a British accent all about writing epic fantasy. Because I am regrettably a girl and, oh yeah, born in the wrong era, I suppose I must be resigned to the fact that this will never be. *Sighs. Oxford seemed liked such a manly place to me. It still does – a little – although I know women go there and sometimes they even write fantasy books. Check out Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – Oxford Alum and fantasy writer, thank you very much. At any rate, it has always been a mythical place to me. Oxford. City of the Brilliant Academics.)
What was I talking about? Oh yes. A Grief Observed. So it’s a book about bereavement and its a book about losing faith. For Lewis, this was a huge deal. Since I was raised Evangelical Christian, I know all about Lewis’ struggle with his atheism, his reluctant conversion to Anglican orthodox and his many, many (somewhat weirdly contradictory) books on Christianity – not to mention his allegorical Chronicles of Narnia.
It does not occur to me that others might be unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis’ life, but then, that’s another fascinating thing about Evangelicals – they only tell you half the story and shelter you to the point of suffocation so that you are surprised when it dawns on you that others did not grow up exactly like you.
For those of you that are not me, C.S. Lewis was a committed atheist. Although, when I examine his reasoning, I actually find his argument for atheism rather weak. It’s probably why it didn’t hold up for him either. He finally converted and then he became a persistent Anglican and spent lots of time writing books in favor of his particular views of his religion, which were not always strictly orthodox, whatever he might have thought.
All that aside. He was still a fantastic writer; a very educated man. This book in particular has always been my favorite of his. I first read it at a time in my life when I was experiencing (*she says in hushed tones) my first, real, heartbreaking loss.
Now, looking back, it doesn’t seem quite the tragedy it was. But seventeen is seventeen. And death and break-ups all have the same thing in common. Losing someone. Someone who is never coming back.
Lewis’ grief was an outpouring of my own. I was always a depressed girl, but reading the first paragraph of his:
“No one ever told me that grief felt like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
Something happened to me then. I realized that the experience of grief is universal. Everyone feels the same. From great Oxford dons with fifteen published books under their belt, to seventeen year old girls who get dumped by the love-of-their-life. The pain is the thing we all share. It was this flash of understanding that made me feel less hurt.
Since then, I’ve read this book over whenever I am feeling slightly traumatized by life events. I’m not seventeen any longer, so things aren’t quite as traumatic as they used to be, but still. I’ve experienced death. More times than I feel is necessary. And loss. And people who just don’t love you any more. And goodbyes. And friends going away. Sometimes forever.
Stuff like that.
Lewis wrote about his pain in a very honest way. He doesn’t shrink from blaming God, blaming the world, hiding away, sobbing and raging and basically hitting all the cycles of grief in a lovely spiral – until at last he accepts it – and comes to peace within himself. Forever changed, of course, because of his experience – but peace and acceptance.
Grieving is such a huge part of our human experience, and yet, it’s the one thing that everyone has the hardest time acknowledging that they feel – that it is Ok to feel it. It’s the one thing that fucks us all up and leaves us scarred and damaged well into our middle-age. What did Nietzsche say? Embrace your dark night of the soul. I’m not sure if he meant grief, or one’s crazy abyss of demons, but it all amounts to the same thing.
Everyone should read this book. I am really of the opinion that if you are human, and ever lost so much as pet fish and felt a little sad, you should read this book. Learn to live with your grief. Learn how to live with it. It’s a recurring fact of life, that’s for sure. I’m afraid that if you’re human and not made of stone you haven’t much choice in the matter.
But Lewis just might give you the words to express it, and through those words, you might feel that amazing universal kinship of tears with the people around you.