I purchased this for my Mad Woman’s Book Club’s themed read of March 2017 – death and dying. Again, I wanted to get a little bit of a headstart so that I could ensure my thoughts were up in time, and ended up devouring it in one go in the middle of January. C.S. Lewis was one of my favourite childhood authors, and I have lost count of the number of times I have read The Chronicles of Narnia whilst snuggled beneath a quilt as a young’un. I have read very little of his work for adults, however, and was thus rather looking forward to reading A Grief Observed.
A Grief Observed is a slim volume, first published in 1961, in which Lewis muses about the death of his wife, H. It begins with rather a heartrending paragraph, which certainly sets the tone of what is to follow: ‘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.’
The extended essay, as I suppose one could categorise it, has been beautifully wrought. It is both endearingly honest, and a moving tribute, in which he remembers his wife, and their given places within the relationship. ‘For H,’ he writes, ‘wasn’t like that at all. Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure – and there’s another red-hot jab – of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H’s lover.’
Lewis interestingly discusses a crisis of faith following his wife’s death: ‘But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.’ He is quite unable to pray for his late wife: ‘Bewilderment and amazement come over me. I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity’.
Throughout, Lewis is contemplative, and talks candidly about the ways in which his grief permeates everything else in life. He continually questions his own place within the world, and what his life is worth alone. He also asks, and ponders upon, what comes after the initial period of grief. ‘This is one of the things I’m afraid of,’ he writes. ‘The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness?… Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nostalgia?’
A Grief Observed is a writing exercise to both voice and come to terms with his sorrow. Some of the sentences addressed personally to H are incredibly touching: ‘Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared’. I am personally an atheist, but Lewis’ ruminations on life and grieving were still of interest to me. I found myself identifying with him on several levels, particularly with regard to the death of my grandmother some years past. Whilst we have different viewpoints on a lot of things concerned with death and dying, A Grief Observed is an undoubtedly beautiful book. It feels almost a privilege to be able to read this small tome with its incredibly powerful message.