Book Recap: A Grief Observed

(Pretend there was a long post before this one that was all philosophical and slightly apologetic and gave an overview of what happened in the long dormancy of this blog, and a new and excited commitment to blog about books I’m reading, things I’m watching, etc. Because I’m too lazy to write it down now, and also, most of y’all reading this are people who know me and know all about my life in the interim, anyway, and can see right through my crap. I just didn’t write. It happens. These are not the droids you’re looking for; move along.)

So at some point in late 2014/early 2015, I came to be the owner of the C.S. Lewis Signature Box Set, which contains six books: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. Shockingly (well, to everyone but me – I’m not actually as well-read as everyone would think), I had only read two of the books (and seen a performance of The Screwtape Letters), so it was the perfect set for me. I reread Mere Christianity first and loved it. Time to tackle the other five, I thought as I stuck the first book back into the box.

Then I didn’t read any of them.

This is a common problem for me – I buy books and then they sit on my shelf for months – sometimes years – before I actually read them. I don’t have the pressure of deadlines, I guess, so there’s nothing that forces me to check them out right away other than my own willpower, which is apparently easily distracted by other books I see on the shelves.

Anyway, fast-forward to this fall, when I joined an Inklings small group through NCC. This semester, we read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed.

True confessions: I still need to finish reading the first one. October got crazy for me, and I missed about 6 weeks of the group. But when I got word we were shifting to the next book, I jumped right back in.

And boy, am I glad I did. Because it was really powerful reading a Lewis book that wasn’t… really Lewis.

Backstory: A Grief Observed was written in the aftermath of the death of Lewis’ wife, Joy (referred to as “H.” in the book). It was originally published under a pseudonym, and it dives down deep into Lewis’ raw emotions – a rare thing to see, since Lewis was notably not an emotional man.

So in many ways, this book is not your typical Lewis – it was written as a journal so there are literally lines where he writes something from a place of deep pain and then in the next paragraph writes (and I quote), “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” (30) There are moments he expresses deep, deep doubt in God and his goodness (which is fascinating when juxtaposed against The Problem of Pain, which was written many years earlier when Lewis was notably not suffering from physical ailments or the loss of his wife). (Edit 12/11/2016: As my Uncle Dave has helpfully noted below in his comment, Lewis was not without suffering before the loss of his wife – he lost his mother at a young age, saw much death and was himself wounded in WWI, and had other family/friend troubles. So I suppose that is further evidence of the depth of his love and the power of his loss at his wife in this book!)  

But that very not-Lewis-like writing is what makes the ending of the book – when Lewis is still grieving but has moved into a different stage that isn’t quite so raw and new – even that much more remarkably and powerfully Lewisian. By that, I’m referring to the way that Lewis, using beautiful phrases and spot-on analogies, can just hit you over the head with a truth about faith that is so simple and yet so profound.

The main example I’m thinking of (though there are many) comes in Chapter 3, when Lewis is talking about the idea of God sending things to try us. He writes: “But of course one must take ‘sent to try us’ the right way. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.” (52)

Somehow, in my more-than-two-decades of faith, this idea had never really crossed my mind before. Which seems silly, in retrospect, because it would be given, if I truly believe God as omniscient and eternal. Yet I never really thought about the fact that me enduring trials and such was meant (at least in part) to show to me the quality of my commitment. I underlined that, put a bunch of stars by it, and then just sat and reread that line about six times the first time.

Similarly, this section in Chapter 4 was underlined and starred (and I bolded the section that was extra underlined in my book):

Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him? But then of course I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all. (68)

Just… oomph. Nothing like a slight shift of your lens to change everything about how you look at yourself and your faith.

There are so many other lines and moments in this tiny little book that struck me, but that would fill up pages and pages – we spent over an hour discussing each chapter in my book club, and that easily could have been extended.

I will say this, though: At one point last year, when I was deep in the midst of grief over the sudden death of my aunt, I saw this book sitting on my shelf and contemplated reading it. I’m glad I didn’t. Though I saw similarities in some of the reactions that Lewis had compared to my own reactions to grief, it is, as the introduction notes, “a” grief observed, and not certainly a prescription to anyone on what grief should look like. I think if I had read this at this time of the year last year, I might have regarded it as such, and that would have been false. But I suppose there is no really knowing for sure.

In any case, I certainly appreciated the chance to read it now (and especially to discuss it in a small group setting). I would highly recommend this book to anyone – short, powerful, and thought-provoking. Plus, it has what has to be one of my fave quotes of anything ever: “‘She is in God’s hands.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword.” (63)