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Thinking on grief

Recently, I went to a funeral, the first in over a decade. It was a hard thing, watching people I care about struggle and suffer. The assurances of my faith felt like ashes on my lips. All I could do was weep with them. I struggled to articulate this experience later to a friend, but could only describe it as somewhat like walking into a stone wall in the dark.

A few days before the funeral, I’d pulled off my bookshelf C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (which he penned during the months after the death of his wife, Joy) and leafed through it. After the funeral, however, I sat down and read the little book cover to cover. It is beautiful, painful, sharp, spare. And early in its pages, fresh from the loss of his wife, Lewis articulated what I’d been seeking to understand of this space of time and place:
It is hard to have patience with people who say, “There is no death,” or, “Death doesn’t matter.” There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?
… poor C. quotes to me, “Do not mourn like those that have no hope.” It astonishes me, the way we are invited to apply to ourselves words so obviously addressed to our betters. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves. If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place and time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.
The fresh wakes of death are jagged and sharp. It makes sense to me why Paul tells us—frees us—to mourn when others mourn (Rom. 12:15). It is what is needed. It is the only thing to be done.

While Lewis doesn’t record his whole journey (does it ever end, really?), he does chronicle a movement through this valley of bereavement which left me a bit more at rest in my own grief. As Chad Walsh writes of the book in my edition’s afterward, “It is implacably honest, and the tentative reassurances toward which it moves—the intuition of Joy’s continued reality in another dimension of existence, the reality of God’s presence and love—are modestly stated, more suggested than stated. But as the book comes to an end, the reader finds himself sharing the first timid movement of Lewis back to a world that makes sense.” And Lewis, as always, takes me with him.

Reading Grief from its beginning to end in one sitting came as a great gift, an articulation of here-and-now but also the yet-to-come. It is an articulation of the way the world and we who are in it breathe. And it ends with footsteps walking into the beautiful ah-yes-I-remember-now-discovery that in this world God is and loves. But today, we mourn.

(Image: by surplusparts at