Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: "A Grief Observed"

Yesterday was C. S. Lewis' birthday (thanks Adam for reminding me). He was born November 29, in 1898. Recently I wrote a short review of one of his best works (in my opinion): A Grief Observed. If you get a chance, buy it and read it, even if you are not dealing with grief right now. It is short, honest, and will bless your soul. Enjoy the review...

Many books have been written on the subject of grief but none quite like this one. Most books on the subject of grief are written about how to deal with grief. This book, however, talks indirectly about dealing with grief by doing exactly what the title implies: observing a particular grief. This book is not about grief (in general) observed for such a book would have to be, as Douglas Gresham says in his introduction to this work, “so general and nonspecific as to be academic in its approach and thus of little use to anyone approaching or experiencing bereavement.”  This book observes C. S. Lewis’ grief after having lost his wife, Helen Joy Gresham (referred to simply as “H.” in the book). It was originally written simply as the journal of a man who was struggling with God and the loss of part of himself. Lewis had no intentions of publishing it until a friend of his read it and begged him to publish it because it would help so many people. It certainly has done that.

This book is especially near to my heart because I have grieved in a way similar to Lewis. I did not lose a wife but I lost my two closest friends in the span of a few months. I struggled mightily with God for a long time after that. There were many days where I shook my fist at God and said, “God, I would leave you if I had anywhere else to go.” Unfortunately, I did not know about A Grief Observed at the time. I know it would have helped me to know that “real” Christians actually do struggle with God when they grieve.

What a “real” Christian thinks, feels, and says when they struggle with grief is possibly the greatest contribution of this book. Often in the Church we spiritualize grief in such a way as to make it seem trivial, which is very unfair to those who are experiencing it. Lewis expresses this frustration, “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.”  The truth of the gospel is foundational in all things, especially death, but many people who have not experienced such grief try to use it as a magic wand to make those who are grieving instantly “feel better.” They apply it with the hopes of making the grief go away. Yet, they do not understand that the gospel is not meant to keep us from mourning. It is meant to help us mourn as those who have its hope (1 Thess. 4:13). All of us who grieve must be allowed to grieve and struggle with God during these hard times. The struggle is normal and okay for God knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). In my estimation, the greatest contribution that this book makes is simply showing that “real” Christians struggle with God during grief. Lewis is one of the giants of the modern Church. His polemical works were ahead of their time and second to none, yet during the grief of death even the man who wrote The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity asked the question, “[W]here is God?”  Even Lewis struggled with feeling that when “you go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain… [you find] a door slammed in your face, and a sound of a bolting and a double bolting on the inside.”  The Church needs this kind of honesty and permission to struggle with God in grief.

Probably the second greatest contribution that Lewis makes with this work is the fact that he does not let the struggle consume him. This work chronicles his move from feeling like the door to God was slammed and locked in his face to realizing, “It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” This may not seem like a large step to one who has not grieved, but those who have felt the cold pain of the closed door know that this is a long way down the path of recovery. If Lewis had left us with the pain of the initial struggle, it would not be helpful to any grieving Christian. However, Lewis honestly chronicled the struggle from deep pain to the point where he could say, “How wicked would it be, if we could, to call the dead back!... Poi si torno all’ eternal fontana.”  The last section translates, “Then back to the eternal fountain.” In this work he showed us that “real” Christians struggle with grief, but also that “real” Christians continue to struggle until they can say to God, “Praise in due order; of [You] as the giver, of her as the gift…. by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy [You].”

The third and final contribution of this work that I would like to mention (there are many more outside of the scope of this short review) is the honest way he struggles with the way others treat him. Those who have a friend who is bereaved can learn a lot of how to treat that friend from this work. For example, he acknowledges that he wants to be around others but wants just to be able to be while around them—“I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”  During grief, especially the initial stages, you do not want to be alone but you also fear being around others because they will try to get you to “talk about it” when you just need their presence. If only people could understand that you do not want them to make you happy; you just want to know that others still are. I think this is what Lewis is expressing here. Another example: “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet…. I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”  I hated this too. People simply do not know how to be around you. They do not want to treat you like “normal” because they feel that would be insensitive but they also do not know how to talk to you about it, so they end up making you feel like an invalid. Most of the time you do not want to talk; you just want to be treated like normal so that you can bring it up when you are ready to talk. For all those who have not experience such grief, A Grief Observed is very helpful in learning how your grieving friends want to be treated.

This book is one-of-a-kind. I am so thankful that Lewis’ friend convinced him to publish it for it has helped so many grieving Christians and will continue to help them for many years to come. I have described the three greatest contributions that I think this book makes but there are so many more that I simply could not fit into the scope of this review. Whether someone is grieving a great loss, knows someone who is grieving a great loss, or simply wants to understand Christian grief better, this book will be invaluable to them. As Douglas Gresham says in his introduction, “…at least this book will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.’”

By His Grace,

1 comment:

Dyl said...

Excellent review of an amazing book. One of my all-time favorite books. I love (as you mentioned near the middle of your post) how you see so clearly his transition... in real time (since it was written as a diary originally). So, so, so good.