meme Log

June 15, 2014

A Grief Observed (8.0)

Filed under: Books — Lynn Fikstad @ 13:44

By C.S. Lewis

If I were a Christian, I would give it a 10. Perhaps that’s unfair, but the shortcomings of a Christian book on grief for a non-believer are significant. A Christian who thinks that the essence the ego survives cannot know a significant part of the grief experienced by an atheist, an agnostic, or even a mystic.

Of course grieving for loss is the same, but there is a different kind of grief that is unrelated to this personal loss. To an unbeliever in the continuation of the ego, the dead lose everything they cared for, everything and everyone they loved; they are no more. Death is final, there is no continuation of the person we knew and loved. Personally, I think of it in this way. My wife lost everything; love, joy, happiness, etc. How can my own personal loss even be compared to hers? Lewis never wrote about that kind of grief, except possibly when he didn’t believe. Most the book describes his personal loss. That is the kind of grief I experience too, and that is where the book was helpful.

I think I understand why some Christians may not find consolation in God during their grieving just because they are grieving a loss. All grieve for the personal loss and even for the loss of other survivors regardless what ultimately happens to the dead. I initially thought Lewis questioned whether the core of his wife’s personality survived, thinking he was a Christian mystic or that he just didn’t know what eternal life meant, but after reading Mere Christianity, that does not seem to be the case or at least it wasn’t when he wrote it about 20 years earlier. He claims his faith provided him with little consolation immediately after her death, but that seems to be because he questioned his faith. By the end of the book, his faith was restored and much of his grief over his loss was alleviated.

H (the pseudonym for his wife) is dead, and despite his religion, the old life is dead too, never to come back. The jokes, the food, the drinks, and other “heartbreaking commonplace” are all dead. They will never return. He states it bluntly, “Talk to me about the truth of religion… the duty of religion… but don’t talk to me about the consolations of religions or I shall suspect you don’t understand.” And here it the kicker, which I think is why the typical Christian does find consolation with their religion – “Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore’, pictured in entirely earthly terms.” Lewis says that is “unscriptural” and that “There’s not a word of it in the Bible”. That may be true, but just because there is not a family reunion that doesn’t diminish the primary belief of Christians. The essence of that person, the ego who we knew survives in an even more joyous way. To say that isn’t a consolation means he can’t understand an unbeliever’s.

I suppose if someone pointed out that the family reunion is scriptural, I suspect Lewis would still not be consoled. He has studied the Bible and that is his interpretation. This is where his mention of the resurrection is so confusing for me. Where and how does that fit into his idea of the final place for his wife’s eternal soul. Getting your body back is not only miraculous it is also about as “earthly” of an event I can imagine. He finds no consolation in that? I don’t understand the inconsistency. When I read this I was not at all familiar with his theology or what exactly he means by the resurrection. After reading a Mere Christianity, I now find some of his statements almost incomprehensible. It was written almost 20 years before his wife died. Maybe is beliefs changed in those years, but there was nothing in A Grief Observed that contradicts what he wrote in Mere Christianity. It is confusing, but not contradictory.

Despite the confusion I had with his religious views, he was right on the mark when he talked about his grief, about his loss. “There is a sort of invisible blanket between me and the world”. That is precisely what it is like. It is like a fog separates you from others and normal day to day activities.

He describes the more mundane, but understandable response to grief. It takes an enormous effort to do anything. Things that were once routine become exhausting. One has to force oneself to live.

The way people react to the grieving is different, but one commonality – the grieving are aware that they are an embarrassment to everyone. Lewis “hates it” when they talk about it, and also hates it when they don’t.

People are embarrassed, those that have been through the process seem less so. His comment about hating it when people say or don’t say something seemed odd. When others completely ignore a recent death the situation becomes not only absurd, but psychologically painful. The world becomes even less real than it already is. It’s as if people think talking about it will make the grieving person sad, and it could, but being sad makes more sense and is less troubling than pretending everything is normal.

He also notices that people see him as death’s head. Happily married people are both thinking, one day his experience will be one of ours. I suspect this is the case for couples. One thing he never mentioned was noticing how many people are couples; something that was never even on one’s radar. Lewis was married to his wife for only 4 years. That is probably why he never mentions this. It is very apparent for someone who has been married for decades.

Going favorite places he and his wife went to did not bother him as he thought it would. I found this to be true. Grief is always there; it’s not specific to a place. It is “like the sky, spread over everything”. Again, a place could bring some sadness, but the same sadness can arise just thinking about the place.

“‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do.” He finds no consolation in his memory. In fact, he feels it is a poor substitute for his wife’s reality and his composition is from him, it is not who she truly is. I understand this too, but the memories, however feeble, are a consoling. They aren’t going anywhere, but I don’t know exactly what Lewis did with his memories. They likely took a less prominent role in his life, as I’m sure happens to everyone going through the grieving process. Perhaps the return he made to his God changed the importance of memories. If so, God did provide him with at least this consolation. I will always cherish my memories, but Lewis didn’t.

You don’t grieve all the time. You can’t. There are moments when the fog lifts, but there is something else that remains although for a while you forgot your grief. Things are different. Something is wrong with the world. It seems “worn out”, “flat”, and “shabby”. And then one remembers. He wonders if the deadness of the world remains when the worst of the agony is gone. I know for many it does, but when you are in the middle of it, it seems impossible to return to normal.

But when people say the grieving person has “gotten over it” and that they are no longer remembering, Lewis explains this is completely wrong. Memories through a vale of tears are probably not the best or even the most consoling of memories. They may be the most poignant, but they probably aren’t the most real and are probably not the most helpful to truly understanding the person who is gone. They may not even be the most loving, and it is love and faith that pulls Lewis through. In his case it is the love for his God.

He never says his wife “passed”. I like this. I use the term when I talk about my wife in order to avoid putting people off, but it makes me cringe every time. She has not “passed away”, she died and death is the right name for what happened. Passing away makes sense in a fairy tale world. It makes no sense to C.S. Lewis or to me. It is as if the word will magically make the reality go away. I find it offensive, but I understand why people need it.

Finally, here is what illustrates the primary shortfall of this book for me and any other non-believer. If Lewis could bring his wife back from the joy she is now experiencing with God, I suspect he would not. That is a significant difference between the Christian and the non-believer. I can honestly say I understand the grief of a Christian, but I know a true believer has no idea what an unbeliever’s grief is like, just as many who haven’t gone through a loss cannot understand grief a Christian cannot understand a certain part of an unbeliever’s grief.

I want to read a book on grief written by an unbeliever, or at least someone who does not think the individuality of the dead survive; a book that explains this other kind of grief. Any suggestions?

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