Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.
When: 1961, following his wife’s death in 1960. They had been married for just four years.
Overview: Later in life, Lewis married Joy Davidman, a prominent author in her own right. She was snarky, academic, and just what Lewis wanted. But after only a few years together, she was diagnosed with cancer; after prayer, Lewis thought she was recovering, but the cancer returned, and, in a short time, she died.
A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’ shortest and most confessional book, pulled from his journals in his time of intense grief. Publishers call these his “reflections,” but that makes them sound like a leisurely or imaginative read, which they are not. This book’s value is not informational, but formational. There is progression, but no steps; doctrine, but no instruction.
Meat: Many people going through grief say that this book simply resonates with their difficulties. Sudden grief often leads to trust issues, and Lewis had his fair share, after marrying so late in life, and being so suddenly bereaved. The passage that resonated most with me is about the sense of being emotionally overwrought, so that grief makes you unable to know God’s nearness. (See the last quote, below.) These common experiences, though seldom spoken of, are the lot of many in grief. Nevertheless, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Bones: These journal entries were not really intended for publication, so they are honest in the extreme. Lewis himself wrote that they were a product of his experience, and do not fit with his other “popular theology” books. I’ll pass on the advice I received about this book: don’t read it until you’re going through true grief.
“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” (ch. 3)
“What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know he is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” (p. 61, ch. 3)
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
“Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t. And so, perhaps, with God, I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
On the other hand, “Know and it shall be opened.” But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also “To him that hath shall be given.” After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.” (p. 63-64)