A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

Does it seem morbid to choose to read a book about grief? I spotted this slim volume – A Grief Observed – on the library returns shelf and was drawn to the title which stood out as unusual.

Faber paperbacks, 1966 edition (first published 1961), 64 pages - library loan

I like the element of chance involved in picking up a book recently selected by someone else for reasons known only to them. I hope that the person who borrowed it previously read it like me, out of curiosity rather than personal grief. Having only read Lewis’s children’s books I felt it might be interesting to read outside of my typical reading scope, but with a familiar voice.

A Grief Observed, is an almost scientific title. It suggests abstraction as if the author is conducting analysis of another person’s state of mind. However this book is intensely personal. It reads like a diary and at the same time, a conversation. The reader comes to feel as if they are a true confident, trusted with Lewis’s most personal moments as he goes through the process of grief after the death of his wife, who is referred only as “H”.

At times his writing feels like a eulogy and at others a simple therapeutic act. At the beginning of the book, Lewis is working through his immediate emotional response, frightened that he might forget “H”, or worse still that he will create a false memory of her – a sort of idol or lifeless doll. He criticises himself for being self-pitying, angrily questions his idea of God and rails against the seemingly glib advice and words given by others trying to offer their awkward yet well-meaning words to a bereaved friend.

Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written. The raw human feeling expressed by Lewis is moving. It is also frightening – who amongst us, as we become more aware of our own mortality and those around us does not occasionally think how terrible it would be to lose someone we love? In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.

Fascinating for me (yet also perplexing), was Lewis’s exploration of his feelings towards God. At times he wonders whether he truly exists and in the depth of his anger declares that if he does he must surely be cruel.

“I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe ‘God always geometrises’. Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects’.”

He uses the epithet “The Cosmic Sadist” to God, and the description of Him as a “Vivisectionist” is such a harsh yet vivid image of a person feeling literally pulled apart… experimented upon by some higher detached being.

In the later passages of the book however there is a distinct change in tone. The writing becomes more conciliatory, less passionate with convoluted explanations for why God does exist and isn’t cruel. Although I was unsure of some of Lewis’s logic, I felt relieved that the process of writing his grief seemed to have helped him to move through and beyond his initial pain. Still though, the knowledge that he has that he may be yet surprised by a new fresh sadness, lingers and reminds us of how deeply he loved his wife.

“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something now to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape”.

I felt admiration for how the clarity and beauty of his words. Although A Grief Observed is a sad piece of writing, Lewis’s obvious passion for his wife inspires me and his words make me wonder at how strongly humans can be bound together by love.

What books have you read that really affected you?

12 responses to “A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

  1. CS Lewis’s non-children’s work really displays his depths and, also, some of the spiritual agenda that is present at a level removed in Narnia. For something right between the two (ie adult in tone but less an essay and more a fully fleshed story) try one of my all-time favorites: his “til we have faces.”

  2. This is a wonderful book, so raw and honest about profoundly difficult questions. Have you seen the film Shadowlands about his marriage? I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in getting some context about his marriage, which was pretty unconventional.

    • I saw Shadowlands a long long time ago, but for some reason didn’t connect when I read this book. Anthony Hopkins isn’t it? I think I’ll have to rent that one again.

      • Yes, it’s Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. There’s an older version BBC as well with Joss Acklund and Claire Bloom. I like both versions.

  3. “He criticises himself for being self-pitying, angrily questions his idea of God and rails against the seemingly glib advice and words given by others trying to offer their awkward yet well-meaning words to a bereaved friend.”

    “Fascinating for me (yet also perplexing), was Lewis’s exploration of his feelings towards God. At times he wonders whether he truly exists and in the depth of his anger declares that if he does he must surely be cruel.”

    Both of the above reflect what many people who deeply grieve feel. Bereaved parents, especially, have a tendency to question the goodness of God. The death of a child is something that makes no sense, and there are no answers here on earth to some of the most agonizing questions.

    It is certainly not morbid to choose to read a book about grief. Death and grief are a part of life, although we in our society tend to avoid the topic. If more people actively pursued reading about grief, they would be more prepared to handle grief that arises in their lives or the lives of those they love.

    Good post.

  4. Blimey Pol I am not sure that I could read this. It almost sounds too emotional if that’s possible and doesn’t sound silly. I am all for books taking me out of my comfort zone but this sounds like it would push me over the edge.

    That said I have just realised I am reading a book about murders performed in the style of an old Icelandic occult cult… Ha.

  5. Is there a trend of murder books set in cold places? 🙂

    It is very moving but it didn’t make me feel teary, more contemplative but it is very sad.

  6. Lovely, sensitive review, Polly – I’ve heard about this one, but haven’t read it. I believe it was initially published anonymously, and Lewis only put his name on it because so many people recommended that he read it himself! I’ve never suffered any grief on this scale, but I’m sure it’s a book I’ll turn to when I do. The best novel about grief that I’ve read is Susan HIll’s In The Springtime of the Year, I really recommend that.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment and recommendation Simon. I’m glad you thought it sensitive, as it is quite hard to review a book that is about such a sad period in life!

  7. Pingback: Novel Insights’ Top 12 Books – 2011 | Novel Insights

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