A review of C.S.Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.”

A Grief Observed, written by C S Lewis in notebooks he found around his house as a way of trying to come to terms with or understand the agony of his bereavement of the loss of his wife Joy Davidman, is a piece of writing well known for its rawness and honesty, and also for it’s description of a process.  Lewis moves from rage and disgust with God (describing Him variously as a cosmic bully, vivisectionist and sadist) to a realisation of the nonsense of this idea (ultimate bullies and sadists would not be able to create the wonderments of our creation) to a sense of the bigger picture of death, loss and Gods purposes that leads to Lewis being able to reconcile faith and loss.

One of the most admirable things about this little book is how it firmly rejects the easy answers, the cop outs.  Lewis includes with these both the ideas of lost loved ones simply waiting for us on some farther shore, and the equally simple but unsatisfactory cop-out of loss and pain being the fruits of an evil god.  There are no short-cuts through such human agony, and any attempt to package it away so we can pretend there is no pain to go through will only worsen things.  Lewis has a gift for analogy that he uses to his usual excellent effect here, such as the one towards the end of the book that compares the bereavement as being in a dark place, that at the start may feel like a cellar or dungeon, but in time we may come to realise that our own preconceptions may have misled us, we hear a wind which suggests we may be in the dark countryside before the dawn.  Or hear a friendly chuckle which suggests the presence of a friend in a darkened room.  Lewis comes back to themes and ideas he has explored in other books; that our ideas of ‘reality’ are shaped by our immediate animal sensations, we cannot comprehend a fraction of what is going on in our own minds or bodies at any time, how much more the wider realms of world and God?  In other words, we constantly confuse the little for the big picture.

Joy Davidman must have been a wonderful woman, and she shines through this book as a fierce intelligence and integrity, and it is these aspects that Lewis feels in touch with as his grief progresses.   And this is a book not only about loss but also about human love.  It describes a relationship that celebrates the raw individuality of the other, and how the two becoming one flesh does not mean that differences are lost or subsumed, but that rather those differences are celebrated  by their union.  In a passage that will upset the preconceptions many hold about Lewis, he mocks gender stereotypes, laughing at the idea that sensitivity is a female trait and chivalry and honour male ones.  with Joy he found someone with which he could not pretend or hide behind ideas.  And this is one of the many losses that he feels keenly.

Facing bereavement of one kind or another will come to us all if we continue to live.  This books is an invaluable contribution to our struggle to understand this inescapable part of the human condition.

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