Monday, 9 March 2009

A Grief Observed

"A Grief Observed" by C.S. Lewis: A Review
"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. "
So begins one of the most honest and personal books to see print. It is a book compiled from the notebooks which Lewis kept after the tragic death of his wife from cancer; it is an outpouring of his grief: in these notebooks, he wrote down the almost unbearable sorrow that he felt.
Although Lewis was Irish in descent, part of his education had been at a Public School. He was already something of an introvert since the death of his mother when he was still young. Consequently, when called to face the rigours of his education, he developed a thick shell which is a characteristic product of such institutions, and is half-jokingly referred to as "a stiff upper lip" or "British -reserve". This manifests itself in an inability to easily express emotions, and is some respects, a defensive strategy. For if you play safe, and keep your feelings to yourself, then there is less danger of hurt. But it has a drawback: if, despite these defensive measures, you are forced to face great emotional trials, such as the death of a loved one, it becomes extremely difficult to talk about it to others, even when this would clearly help.
Lewis solved this problem by, in a sense,  talking to himself: that is, by writing down his deeply felt grief. By this method, his grief found an outlet, so that at last he could come to terms with his wife's death. He himself was quite aware of the therapeutic value of this form of expression:
"By writing it all down (all? no: one thought in a hundred)," he wrote, "I believe I get a little outside it."
But coming to terms with grief by this means was not simply a way of escape for his emotions: Lewis also faced a crisis of belief. He was a convinced Christian, and yet had to confront the problem caused to such a faith by suffering, pain and death - realities all too present in the last year's of his wife's life. In particular, he found religion little help in comforting him: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion, and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
He also saw the snare that might occur in using the memory of his wife as a guide to present living, and an argument for making decisions. "Yesterday, I stopped myself only in time from saying about some trifle 'H. wouldn't have liked that.' This is unfair to others. I should soon be using 'what H. would have liked' as an instrument of domestic tyranny; with her supposed likings becoming a thinner and thinner disguise for my own."
Finally, he comes to peace with himself, and with God: "When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer'. It is as though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand."'
When Lewis published this book, it was under a pseudonym, N.W. Clerk; it saw print because he thought that it might help others in their attempts to "argue out" their grief. For it is, after the road of pain has been traversed, a triumph of hope over despair.

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