26 October 2017

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Surprise, surprise, I found out about this book through Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking! This book is essentially a day-by-day description of C. S. Lewis' grief after the death of his wife Joy Davidman. Naturally this was a book Didion was well aware of, and she cites it frequently in her memoir chronicling the death of her husband and daughter. As her grandmother always advised in times of need, "go to the literature."

This book is incredibly short (112 pages) and you could easily read it in one sitting. It is also pretty informal. What I mean by this is that it really feels like you're just reading Lewis' notepad.. how he felt each day, what he's come to think about death in general, etc. I actually really enjoyed this format, especially given the subject matter.

You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them. Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What's left? A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost. All mockeries or horrors. Three more ways of spelling the word dead. It was H. I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest."

C.S. Lewis and his late wife Joy Davidson

I'm curious how therapeutic this was for Lewis... if writing about this horrible time in his life was able to give him any insight or closure. All authors seem to have a different opinion on this concept: Didion has always said that writing is a form of catharsis (as noted in the essay "On Keeping a Notebook" in Slouching Towards Bethlehem). But then there are others who claim it has not helped them at all, like Jon Krakauer who survived one of the greatest tragedies Everest has ever seen: "What happened on the mountain was gnawing my guts out. I thought that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn't, of course." Lewis doesn't really mention where he falls on this scale, at least not within A Grief Observed.

It's important to note that Lewis was aware his wife was going to die of cancer as she was diagnosed before they married. This is different from Didion's case, where her daughter unexpectedly caught a deadly case of pneumonia, and her husband dropped dead on Christmas eve in their own home. I'm 100% not saying this made it easier for Lewis, I just think it is important for the reader to know this going in. In my version of A Grief Observed there is a forward by Madeleine L'Engle (author of A Wrinkle in Time) who acknowledges this.

He deals with most emotions you would expect to experience after a death: depression, anger, acceptance, etc. He also talks a lot about our inability to accept what has happened, and this is something I think drew Didion to this text the most. The title of her book (The Year of Magical Thinking) reflects this sentiment exactly: that you somehow believe they aren't really gone, that you save a pair of their favourite shoes for reasons you're embarrassed to admit.

Joan Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne
Lewis see's our inability to accept this sort of trauma as something innate. This is best described in the following passage:

Five senses; an incurably abstracted intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them - never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"

I love this quotation. It makes so much sense to me. We see ourselves as logical beings but so often we seem completely incapable of accepting what is said and done. I haven't had a significant other die (and thank god because I'd never recover), but I've still experienced a type of loss (i.e. my horrific breakup I never shut up about) that felt incredibly painful. I was unable to process that it was over, that I wouldn't be sleeping in his bed anymore, that I wouldn't be having dinner with his parents anymore, blah blah blah. I remember desperately asking over and over the night that it happened "are you sure?"

Me, Meg and my sister always talk about this: even after our our ex-boyfriends told us to our face that they didn't love us, we still didn't believe them.


Well, as Lewis would say, it's because our senses are so faulty.. we are composed of five sense that are not as precise / logical as we would like to think they are.

You can't see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears."

C. S. Lewis

I would recommend this book to anyone who has dealt with loss of any sort, as I think we can all agree that grief isn't just a feeling of those mourning the dead. A Grief Observed is like a notebook from the field .. it seems like you are reading the writings of an anthropologist logging his time in New Guinea. This was a major selling point to me. To see someone write about grief in such a clinical, honest way was very refreshing. He doesn't rely on tropes or cliches, he just tells it as it is, how he is feeling in that exact moment.

Disclaimer: C. S. Lewis is extremely Christian ... his wife was originally an atheist but converts to Christianity with the help of Lewis. I am not religious at all, and Lewis' Christian roots did not bother me. He honestly doesn't refer to God too much, and it is easy to sort of overlook the few times he does.

As always I will end this review with one of my favourite passages. It's about how we can never truly prepare ourselves for all of the loss we will face in our lifetime. It always gets me...

It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on."

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