Read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis Free Online
Book Title: A Grief Observed|
The author of the book: C.S. Lewis
ISBN 13: 9780571066247
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 1.96 MB
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Reader ratings: 7.9
Edition: Faber & Faber
Date of issue: December 12th 1966
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To begin with, let me offer you my condolences.
If you’ve come here to read about C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, you’re probably doing it for a specific reason. It’s not the thing you reach for in times of sunshine and cloudless days and a future of beautiful forevers. It’s the thing you reach for when you are casting about in the dark, looking for something, anything, that might help.
So, I am sorry for your loss. For the grief you are experiencing.
* * *
My grief: On June 22, 2015, my brother-in-law Paul drowned. He was an exceptional human being. He was smart – a college graduate working on his PhD. He was fun. He laughed like nothing else. He was athletic. He played college rugby and climbed mountains and ran 50k trail runs. He was a great friend, an incredible brother, and a transcendent uncle. He was life personified. He died at the age of 24.
* * *
All grief is different.
* * *
C.S. Lewis’s grief was the death of his wife.
Clive Staples Lewis was nearing the age of 60 when he married Helen Joy Gresham (nee Davidham, and referred to in A Grief Observed as “H”), an American divorcee who had come to England, leaving behind an abusive husband. Lewis was an Oxford don, a Christian apologist, and the creator of the minimalist epic, The Chronicles of Narnia. He wasn’t looking for a profound and passionate love, but he found it all the same.
Lewis knew that Gresham had terminal cancer when they wed. For a time, remission gave them some measure of hope. The cancer returned, however, and she died, leaving Lewis bereft. This, his first great experience of love, and of the loss of love, spurred him to do what he did in such an inimitable fashion. He wrote.
A Grief Observed is a collection of his meditations. They are written moment-to-moment as he experienced them, so that it’s almost like an old-fashioned live blog. But of course, it’s Lewis doing the writing.
Originally, his reflections were so raw, so honest, that they were published under a pseudonym.
* * *
Right from the start, from the very first page, you know that you have found a companion in this strange new world of loss and emptiness that you’ve entered.
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. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
Yes, that’s it exactly. The feeling of being concussed. I remember standing in the receiving line at Paul’s wake for nearly five hours and feeling something that can only be described as palpable nothingness. Everything was sad and hard and vivid (you will never forget the image of young people seeing a young person in a coffin, never) but it didn't really touch me. There was a layer between myself and the world. I felt like I was observing everything from a distant planet. It might be a survival mechanism, this inward retreat, the way that veins constrict when your body is too cold.
Of course, you are not an observer, and you must, at some point, interact, rejoin the flow of humanity:
An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.
Nothing can help you. Nothing except the miracle that isn’t going to happen. But grief isn’t logical, so you lash out. You expect too much, even though you know in your heart that nothing would really feel right. Others sense that, and they don’t know how to approach you. It’s awkward. Some over-emote. Others under-emote. Some pity you. Others are ready to move on five minutes after the funeral. I had one friend who managed to do nothing. He was a good college buddy, a groomsman in my wedding, yet I never heard a thing. Not a phone call, text, email, or raven. Based on his Facebook posts, he must have been too busy home brewing. For a short span, I felt an irrational anger towards home brewing. That has mostly passed.
People do try, though. Even though they don’t know what you want; and even though you don’t know what you want. And that is a blessed thing. This very human need to try. It reminded me of the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, when Henry tells Bruce: “Everybody knows everybody is dying; that’s why people are as good as they are.”
Friends who brought meals and groceries. Who watched our kids. Who weren’t afraid to stop by, even though death is a frightening thing, treated by some like a communicable disease you can avoid by ignoring it. (You can’t, by the way). Employers gave us time off. Coworkers covered our projects.
Maybe the worst part is the people with whom you must associate, but who don’t know your loss. You can’t tell them, because it’s over-sharing. But by not telling them, it feels like withholding a terrible secret. That’s when you start to see the utility in mourning clothes. Or just a simple black band around your arm that whispers: I am among you, but not a part of you.
* * *
You have to go on. So they say. You have to go on, except now it is a lonelier place, this life.
At first I was very afraid of going to places where H. and I had been happy – our favorite pub, our favorite wood. But I decided to do it at once, like sending a pilot up again as soon as possible after he’s had a crash. Unexpectedly, it makes no difference. Her absence is no more emphatic in those place than anywhere else. It’s not local at all…Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.
That’s the way of it. You cannot escape it. Anywhere you go. Leave it to Lewis to find the simplest, most perfect way to describe it. Even at my best I’ll quickly snap back to this new reality. I think a thousand times a day: Paul would’ve liked this. An absence like the sky, spread over everything.
* * *
This is a book heavy on spirituality. This isn’t surprising, given its provenance. To his credit, Lewis’s faith never wavered. He gives you an extended discussion about belief, but one that exists within an interesting paradigm. Lewis, you see, never doubted God’s existence. Rather, his dialectic attempts to identify the kind of God that rules above. His assumption about God’s very existence is comforting.
I didn't mind these sections of A Grief Observed, though it’s not what I was seeking. I saw what Lewis was doing as he wrote them: he was trying to keep sane by intellectualizing the process. It probably helped him to retreat back into what he knew. I don’t buy any of what he’s selling, though. If we’re being honest, I have my proof about God. On the day Paul died, I prayed for him to be saved, and then I prayed to die, and both prayers went unanswered. It’s almost empirical at this point.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate faith. I do. I see how it has literally saved some of the people around me. It has provided the comfort, the hope, the solace that one needs to keep going. And that’s without mentioning how important the Church community has been to my wife’s family. It is an inspiring and jaw dropping thing to see such generosity. Humans are really at their best during the worst.
You think you know what matters. But you can’t really know the value of abstractions such as love, family, friends, community, until you are called upon to need it. In The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone says to a supplicant, “If you had built up a wall of friendships you wouldn’t have to ask me to help.” He’s right. Live your life so that when you die, your wake lasts for hours, and everyone has a story to tell. Live your life in such a way that when things go wrong, you are surrounded by a wall of love.
Paul loved Kurt Vonnegut. So here’s Vonnegut’s advice: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” It will pay off in the end.
* * *
Lewis didn't set out to write an advice book. A Grief Observed is not going to show you the pathway out of despair. There are no pithy aphorisms. In this slim volume, the size of a pamphlet, Lewis is honest enough to depict his own troubling doubts:
This is one of the things I’m afraid of. The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness? Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal? Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?
Hard questions without good answers. I feel like I’ve joined a club. A horrible club. I call it “the Other People Club.” For membership, something bad has to happen to you – something that would normally happen to other people.
I take solace in Paul.
It’s a cliché to say that so-and-so would “want this” or “want that.” I also think it can be true. When you know and love someone you know what they would say in a situation, what they would think. You can know and love someone enough that they are there even when they are not. I don’t think Paul would want us all to be unhappy, to view the world as a “mean street.” He loved life too much.
All of life’s lessons come too late to avoid the loss that is the lesson.
Vonnegut again, from A Man Without a Country: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.’”
It’s obvious that we should live like that. But the sham and drudgery of daily existence makes it hard. Morning commutes. Internet comment boards. Work deadlines. The barista who gave you coffee instead of a double-shot of whatever. All the little things that loom so large until you get that wakeup call that says that never really mattered at all.
Of course, I am the king of sweating the small stuff. On my first day back from work, I went into the courtroom and within a minute, the judge was screaming at my client, screaming at me, and finally screaming at my client again for reasons that still elude me. Normally, this would’ve destroyed me. I would’ve brooded for days. This didn't touch me at all. As I left the courtroom, one of my colleagues gave me a big smile and whispered: “Welcome back.”
I laughed until I nearly cried.
* * *
All grief is, in its own way, the same.
* * *
There are many reasons why this book is so valuable. It gives voice to what you are feeling. It shows you that you are not alone. It gets you through an hour or two, and that hour or two is important when time has stopped.
* * *
I leave you where I started, with my condolences. I wish you the courage to endure what is to come. I wish you strength for the road ahead. And if there is a god, I pray that god goes with you.
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CLIVE STAPLES LEWIS (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954. He was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He wrote more than thirty books, allowing him to reach a vast audience, and his works continue to attract thousands of new readers every year. His most distinguished and popular accomplishments include Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and the universally acknowledged classics The Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies and been transformed into three major motion pictures.
Lewis was married to poet Joy Davidman.
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