Mere curiosity and a recent conversation with a good friend prompted me to read CS Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’ – a series of personal reflections that he poured out over several notepads following the death of his dear wife, Joy Davidman, in 1960.
It’s just a small book of four chapters – four notebooks into which he scratched his grief – but not one that I am able to rush through. There’s a density, a mass, to every sentence he writes which expands and weighs heavier with every subsequent re-reading and reflection. It’s a unique and unusual reading experience for me. In fact it’s not like reading at all; the grammar of grief is just a necessary hindrance. I am not always sure whether I am connecting with the author’s grief or superimposing and exploring my own as I read; possibly, at times, both.
I’m not yet half way through but one thing I have observed is how differently people grieve. Perhaps this is why this book is entitled ‘A’ Grief Observed. My own journey alone into that unknown place assures me of one thing: that grief is a unique and unpredictable experience. Just last weekend I was doing the chores in the kitchen and without prior thought or reflection, I began to cry incessantly. I couldn’t stop. It went on all through the afternoon as I mopped and scrubbed and folded. “I am worn out from groaning…” (Psalm 6:6) I’ve known of many times in my life when my sides have hurt from laughing – that’s something Annie and I experienced a lot of. But I was most likely in the cradle the last time I experienced the smothering ache of sorrow and sobbing like that.
Quite frankly, there are many moments in reading this book when I can neither understand nor resonate with the author. Like me, Lewis was a follower of Christ and he lost his wife to cancer but unlike me, he had an incredibly brilliant and analytical mind and for that reason the way he processed death and separation from his loved one and the way he explored and experienced and expressed his grief was – at times – very different to my present history with grief. For example, one thing I haven’t really been able to connect with is the momentary outbursts of anger with God he experienced.
‘Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.’ – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed
I honestly haven’t – yet – experienced that. Frustration with not having Annie, yes – but anger with God, no. The absence of anger within me has little to do with any careful Godly reverence or fear; I’m not trying to not be angry, I simply am not angry with God – or for that matter, anyone else, regarding my Annie’s death. I view this world through the lens of God’s Word and through that lens I see things most clearly. We live in a fallen world and cancer is just one of the many awful and painful consequences that will lead us all to the inevitability of death. Cancer and death doesn’t make me angry with God; they cause me to draw nearer to Him – the source of all hope and restoration.
In many ways, I’m actually glad that I’m not burdened with the kind of mind that Lewis had. His exploration of grief was certainly deeper and wider than mine so far; some of his questions and thoughts are completely alien to me; I neither have the mental capacity, the inclination nor the intrigue to conjure up such things – and I am not persuaded or convicted to borrow them; his grief doesn’t make my grief feel any less or any more painful. But despite the difference in processing, I find that I reach identical painful depths in my experience of grief and although I break connection with Lewis at times in this book, I fellowship with him again in another part of grief’s deep valley on another page or in another paragraph or sentence or question:
‘Where is she now?’ That is, in what place is she at the present time?’ – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed
A few days after Annie was called home, I shared this thought…
The fact that Annie is now with Jesus is as sure and as certain as the fact that she is no longer with me. However, the process of me realising both those things is incomplete and slow and may take a long time to root and flourish. But I know that as the Lord helps me to accept the pain of the one, the joy of the other will increase. – Broken Chariots entry, March 22nd 2013
I am further on in the process of realising that my Annie is not with me and never will be with me on this earth. By ‘further on’, I don’t mean that I am far into the process. Almost every day I experience yet another new, painful and difficult implication – sometimes practical, other times spiritual or emotional – of my Annie’s absence. What I mean is that I am further on in the process of realising her absence than I am realising that she is with Jesus. Four months ago I had rather expected that those two realities would increase commensurately but time and grief doesn’t unfold so neatly. It’s not a case of simply knowing where Annie is – I know, by the fact of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and by faith in His promises that Annie is with Him; I know by the evidence of His Spirit within her right to the bitter end; what I lack is a better and fuller realisation of it – a joyful realisation which compensates (perhaps even over-compensates) for the painful realisation of her absence from me.
‘Kind people have said to me ‘She is with God.’ In one sense that is most certain. She is, like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable.’ – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed
I often go to bed at night and ask the Lord if He might let me glimpse that place – that incomprehensible and unimaginable place – perhaps in a dream or a vision. But each time I sleep, I simply wake up in the morning without having had any dreams – or at least without any memory of them. Saturday morning was actually the first time I can remember dreaming about Annie since she passed away. I thought my dreams would be filled with my Annie but instead I only day dream about her. But I woke up yesterday morning immediately after a dream in which I was just holding Annie and crying; it was a disappointing, fragile, vapour of a dream and even now, the pale image of it has almost faded. It wasn’t the dream I was praying for.
And yet, I recognise (and rejoice) that the seeds of that realisation are within me…
‘You never know how much you really believe anything, until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.’ – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed
Over the last four weeks we have experienced an incredible summer. It’s not been since 2006 since we’ve had a summer like this and each day I am reminded just how much Annie loved the summer and the warmth of the sun, the long evenings in the company of good friends, bicycle rides absent of destination, eating strawberries and lush salads out on the deck, driving past the brilliant yellow rapeseed fields just because, unplanned last minute day trips to the shore… The last month has been filled with formal and informal occasions that my Annie would have loved to have been part of – in particular the weddings of three dear couples. And as I reflect, I realise that not once have I agonised “Oh, I wish Annie could have been here!” For sure, I have missed her greatly and I think Lewis graphically described that absence perfectly when he wrote:
‘The death of a beloved is an amputation.’ – CS Lewis, A Grief Observed
But I find that I resolve the tension of Annie’s absence in a different way to wishing she was here. Instead, I just long to be where she is now. I long to be in that place, with Jesus. In Psalm 39 David said “Show me, Oh Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days…” and I cannot tell you how much I wish I could know that or how thrilled I would be if I were to find that it was a small number.
There’s a hollowness to everything in this world. This isn’t home; I realise that with an increasing degree of intensity and discomfort and displacement each day. This isn’t home. And from where I stand now, I realise it wouldn’t be any more home with Annie by my side on this earth. But it is not without purpose. Although I look ahead and upward, God has me here on purpose.
I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. – Philippians 1:23
I explained in my previous post, three weeks ago, that I had ahead of me a very full period of ministry. I was reluctant to refer to it as ‘demanding’ or ‘busy’ but it has been challenging. Going to weddings is hard enough without Annie, preparing to preach and participate in them is even harder. Physically it’s been an exhausting few weeks and there have been many times during it when I’ve just sat down in preparation for the next opportunity and said to the Lord “I am tired and uninspired, Lord!” And each time, He has filled me and inspired me and carried me.
I know that He has moved many of His people to pray for me over the last few weeks, and I thank you for responding to His prompting.
In His Arms,