May be of special interest to those who have experienced spouse/partner loss.
Recommended for young adults and adults 18 years and older, people supporting others who are grieving and spousal loss survivors.
When I first read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, published in 1961, like many, I was already familiar with the author – or so I thought. His beloved series The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954) rotated regularly through my reading list as a child; in fact, my mother recently reminded me that she had begun reading the series aloud to me when I was only two years old and quite incapable of grasping either the plot or the allegorical Christian subtext. Narnia has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into over forty languages and offers young readers adventure, hope, and the comfort of Christian ideals, including afterlife.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
This slim, meditative volume gives readers insight into a far more complex, private, and tormented Lewis than any of his other work. It can be interpreted as an almost-accidental memoir of intense personal loss. Unlike traditional memoirs, A Grief Observed does not provide the reader either a narrative arc or much biographical insight into the subject’s life. The text is comprised entirely of entries from Lewis’ private journals following the loss of his wife, poet Joy Davidman, who died of cancer on July 13, 1960. At the time of her death, she and Lewis had been married only four years. After compiling the text for publication, Lewis published it under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk; throughout the book, he refers to Joy only as “H.,” a veiled reference to her little-used first name, Helen. His authorship was only made public following his death.
“The death of a beloved is an amputation.”
I read A Grief Observed for the first time as a returning undergraduate at the University at Albany (SUNY), in a course titled Love & Loss in Literature and Life taught by Dr. Jeffrey Berman. Berman, a celebrated educator and prolific writer, had designed the course in response to the recent death of his own beloved wife, Barbara. In reading A Grief Observed then, I was struck by the raw pain influencing Lewis’ writing style and the circular questioning of himself, God, and the universe in his non-linear chapters; similarly, I was amazed that my recently-bereaved professor could teach this text.
It is intense. Individual lines hit one hard with the grief that can be felt in the author. Lewis grapples not only with memories of Joy but also with fears of forgetting her. He turns both toward and away from the God he devoutly followed for decades and writes, “don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.” He likens himself to an amputee and argues that after such profound loss, one cannot ever truly be whole again. Importantly, Lewis does not merely write about his grief but from his space of grief, which may particularly resonate with readers.
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
Rereading this text in the many years since I took that course, I have come to appreciate far better the shared impetus of the author and my amazing professor – the need to undertake grief work. Only by working through our grief can we begin to acknowledge our loss and move forward in our mourning. Making sense of devastating loss is possible only by recognizing its presence, and our loved one’s absence, “spread over everything.” For anyone who is coming to terms with loss, particularly spousal loss, A Grief Observed is a compelling reminder that our mourning experiences are unique, that our beliefs following loss may indeed be tested, and that sometimes working through what Lewis terms the “mad midnight moments” of our grief may be the only way we can move forward.
- Some scholars speculate that Lewis insisted that A Grief Observed be published pseudonymously in order to avoid criticism from his Christian readers. We know that grief can challenge our religious or spiritual beliefs. Where in the text do you see Lewis’ faith challenged and how does he try to make sense of his relationship with God? Have you experienced any similar responses to loss?
- Lewis asserts that “the death of a beloved is an amputation” and that, while he may “walk” again, or “get about on crutches,” he will “never be a biped again.” Have you experienced a loss that felt literally crippling in this way? Do you believe that after this type of “amputation,” one can regain wholeness?
- A Grief Observed opens, “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.” What feelings and bodily sensations can you identify in relation to your grief experiences? How have these feelings and sensations changed as your grief journey progressed?
About the Reviewer
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and conducts workshops on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is also a bereavement and suicide consultant and the author of the booklet, Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free resource available to grieving families and helping professionals published by the Funeral Service Foundation. She can be reached at SaraMurphyDeathEducator@gmail.com.