A Grief Observed

by C. S. Lewis, Bantam Books, 1963, 151 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

I was only fourteen years old when C. S. Lewis’ wife, Joy, died in 1960. They had only been married for four years. And I had not yet finished high school when Lewis died in 1963. Not being an avid reader in my youth, I was not yet aware of the prolific and creative writings of this master word-crafter. Even after high school, I only got to know Lewis through a few of his writings such as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. For the rest of my life I have been trying to catch up on reading the fifty or so publications that flowed from his pen. Although I know I am more than four decades behind, my reading of A Grief Observed was part of this exercise.

Perhaps, if I had read the book earlier, before I had witnessed and experienced considerable doses of grief myself, I could not have appreciated its worth. Most of Lewis’ writings before A Grief Observed bear witness to a mind that could smell nonsense and fallacies and…destroy them by a merciless dialectic process (112). As well by an extra-ordinary creativity that communicated universal truth through fantasy. Few would argue that he was one of the most brilliant Christian apologists of the twentieth century.

But toward the end of his life, after his bachelor state had been interrupted by four years of an intensely happy marriage to Joy – and after she had died – Lewis found himself in the grip of a grief for which he was not prepared. And so, as Chad Walsh writes in a lengthy “Afterward”, In the midst of an agonized bereavement, Lewis records new insights that modified the neat certainties in his earlier books (149). So instead of encountering finely tuned arguments or the exploits of imaginary characters we find in this book a broken man jotting down observations of his own torturous journey through grief.

Indeed this journey of grief is for Lewis a test of faith at a most profound level. He states that You never know how much you really believe something until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you (25). Early on in his “jottings” he notes that his temptation is not so much to discontinue believing in God, but to stop believing in the goodness of God. But gradually, as the process of sorrow circles through his life he does begin to detect a kind of spiral that lifts him out of his deepest darkness. Yet it is fair to surmise that he never did quite recover his “old self” with all its logical certainties. So, to be fair to Lewis, any student of his writings would do well to read his earlier works of greater certainty in the light of the mystery of unknowing that permeates this chronicle of his own journey through grief.

A Grief Observed is a welcome relief from much popular triumphalistic piety that doesn’t take death or grief seriously. Often it is said that death doesn’t matter or that it is only a doorway to a family reunion on the other side. But Lewis insists that we have no biblical foundation for the notion of happy family reunions on the other side. Death is real. It separates, hurts and must be grieved. According to Lewis, if we only use God as a means to get the family back together again “like it used to be” we are not approaching God at all. I found such ideas and many more dove-tailing quite readily with some of the things I am in the process of learning about living with grief. If you missed this book for forty years like I did, it’s not too late to read it now.