A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis – A Book Review by Michael Eric Martin
One of the most intriguing aspects of C.S. Lewis’ writings is the vast array of literary genres used. He wrote science fiction, children’s literature, theology, and even autobiographical literature. It is of the latter that A Grief Observed can be categorized. It is a book that has been considered to be one of the most heartfelt and personal expressions on the subject of grief. Though the book is rather short, its length does not diminish its impact upon Christian literature. There is an unprecedented transparency expressed within the pages of A Grief Observed as if the reader was granted a glimpse behind the curtain of C.S. Lewis’ heart in some of his darkest and most difficult moments. The book contains journal entries following the untimely death of his precious wife Joy, and is written with a certain type of rawness and reality probing into the depths of the grieving human heart. Interestingly, C.S Lewis had no intention of publishing this collection of personal journal entries on the subject of grief. Yet after showing these memoirs to a close and personal friend who encouraged Lewis to reconsider the matter, Lewis changed his position and chose to release the writings as a collected work titled A Grief Observed. This particular friend felt that the writings could serve as a help to others who had also been through the difficult seasons associated with personal grief. Yet Lewis still chose to publish the book under the pen name of N.W. Clerk to prevent his identity from being a distraction from the actual work itself. The assumption is that Lewis desired for the book to be more therapeutic and less autobiographical in nature. He intentionally avoided the use of proper names throughout the book, and instead used the initial H. in reference to his wife Joy. In 1963, the book was republished crediting C.S. Lewis as the author. For fifty years, A Grief Observed has helped many people cope and deal with grief. Though each individual’s circumstance and situation varies, grief is not a respecter of persons, and impacts the heart and life of anyone who has experienced the passing of a loved one. The title is very appropriate; for the book records Lewis’ personal observations while walking through the one of the darkest seasons of the human experience. A Grief Observed provides a front row seat on the emotional roller coaster of grief, and allows the reader to peer into the personal pages of one man’s story, and how he dealt with the aftermath of losing his precious soul mate.
There is a common thread found within the early sections of the book, and it is a strong and overwhelming sense of hopelessness. This hopelessness is expressed in a very vivid manner which clearly exposes Lewis’ personal insecurities and struggles through the early stages of his grief. To begin with, he expresses an overwhelming sense of fear. To him grief is equivalent to fear. This fear is paired with a sense of solitude and loneliness as he feels that God has slammed the door shut in his face. Instead, this unprecedented feeling of solitude opens the door to an overall feeling of despondency. This feeling of emptiness and rejection is certainly new soil and uncharted territory for the footpath of Lewis’ spiritual pilgrimage. And as he probes for answers to why his precious wife has died, these feelings of fear and solitude are only compacted into the soil of his heart. Yet all he can excavate is an overwhelming vacuum of hopelessness. All of these difficult struggles are well articulated in the book, and effectively reveal the depth of pain found within the crevices of his grieving heart. Lewis also alludes to the meaninglessness of life, an expression and thought similar resembling the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. He writes as if no one were listening, not even God. Because of this, there is a very real and raw tone in these early journal entries. This is especially evident in moments when Lewis questions his personal faith in God. And although some of his words and thoughts are not necessarily pleasant to ponder, no one can deny the fact that they are sincere.
The opening tone to A Grief Observed is certainly one of candidness and transparency. It is a tone that sets the stage for the rest of the book. Lewis’ journal entries progress in a manner in which one can clearly see the various stages of grief he experienced. This initial tone of hopelessness rapidly takes the reader on a downward spiral as Lewis digs deeper into the personal pit of desperation. Like a boxer repetitively and aimlessly swinging at the air, he scrutinizes daily tasks, dissects the difficulties faced, and poses unanswerable questions. And like a chain, one depressive thought is linked to another.
Yet by the grace of God, it is with this very chain of thoughts that Lewis is able to pull out of the murky pit he has dug. Gradually the journal entries have a change in tone, and a sense of hope begins to whittle away at the initial hopelessness he felt. The healing Lewis experienced is well documented. During this process of restoration, he begins to see his time of grief from more of an eternal perspective. He begins to understand that the season of grief is simply another chapter in his total life experience, and that it has simply been a teaching tool used by God to progress him forward. He understands that no one ever really gets over losing someone, and that losing a loved one can be likened to an amputation. Part of you is gone, never to return; yet life goes on. God has an eternal purpose for all things that happen even when our vision has been clouded with what is only temporal.
A Grief Observed must be seen in light of another autobiographical work penned by Lewis twenty-three years earlier. In 1940, he wrote his theological work known as The Problem with Pain. In the book, Lewis addresses the difficult subject of pain by peering through the lenses of Christianity. He explores various topics such as the goodness of God, original sin, and the reason behind human suffering. It is this latter subject that is especially significant in relation to A Grief Observed. To Lewis, suffering is good if it eventually leads a person to submit to God. He also saw suffering as simply a chapter in the whole life experience, only to be followed by another chapter, a “sequel” known as joy. In the years that separated these two autobiographical works, Lewis had not changed his positioning on the subject of suffering. Though his struggle with personal pain is obvious in his early journal entries of A Grief Observed, in the end he saw grief as a chapter of his life penned by the good hand of God.
A Grief Observed is a must read for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one. For decades, this book has served as a help to many people who have dealt with the various stages of grief, and is sure to do so in years to come. Death is a necessary season of life, and most people will be touched by its broad brushstroke at some point in their life. Simply put, death is part of the human life portrait. This is why A Grief Observed is a must in the library of every born again believer.
– Pastor Eric