Observing Grief

C. S. Lewis, cancer and grief:

In many areas of life the ideal is to combine the theoretical with the practical. This is true when it comes to thinking about, writing about, and speaking about the issues of pain, suffering and evil – especially from a biblical perspective. You want to be able to combine biblical, theological and philosophical thoughts with pastoral and experiential ones.

Here I want to discuss two people who have tried to do this: one very amateurishly, and one superlatively. I refer to myself and C. S. Lewis. I have for a very long time been interested in Christian apologetics in general and theodicy in particular. The latter has to do with seeking to show that a loving and wise God is NOT fully incompatible with pain and evil, with grief and suffering.

Of course very large libraries of books already penned on all this exist. On my site I have over 800 articles on apologetics and over 100 on theodicy. It is hoped that many of them combine the academic and intellectual with the emotional and pastoral.

But when one goes through some really hardcore suffering, such as I have had with my wife’s 18-month cancer battle and then death, it is hoped that what one says and writes during and after such struggles more or less matches with what was written prior to them.

As to someone far superior to me on all this, I revert back to the great C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). He of course was one of the greatest Christian apologists of last century (following his conversion from atheism). Two notable books of his fully deal with suffering and evil:

The Problem of Pain (1940)
A Grief Observed (1961)

The former is a very learned and important discussion of the issues, while the latter describes his much more raw reactions to the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. She too died from cancer, on 13 July, 1960. That second volume appeared soon after her passing.

Yes, one can certainly notice differences between the two volumes – how can there not be? But his basic views on the matters more or less did not change – but they become much more emotionally charged, and very hard and real questions were asked. His faith wavered as well at times.

I would hope that everyone reading this piece would have read these two remarkable books. I have discussed both over the years, including in this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/07/26/c-s-lewis-and-the-problem-of-pain/

For the remainder of this piece I just want to share a lengthy quote from his 1961 volume. I will just feature some of what is found in his first chapter. Here is what he said:

Image of A Grief Observed
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis (Author), Madeleine L'Engle (Foreword) Amazon logo

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.


At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.


There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life. I was happy before I ever met H. I’ve plenty of what are called ‘resources’. People get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly. One is ashamed to listen to this voice but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.


On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and

honest. But the bath of self-pity, the wallow, the loathsome sticky-sweet pleasure of indulging it — that disgusts me. And even while I’m doing it I know it leads me to misrepresent H. herself. Give that mood its head and in a few minutes I shall have substituted for the real woman a mere doll to be blubbered over. Thank God the memory of her is still too strong (will it always be too strong?) to let me get away with it.


For H. wasn’t like that at all. Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure — and there’s another red-hot jab — of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H’s lover.


And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief. Except at my job — where the machine seems to run on much as usual — I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth? They say an unhappy man wants distractions — something to take him out of himself. Only as a dog-tired man wants an extra blanket on a cold night; he’d rather lie there shivering than get up and find one. It’s easy to see why the lonely become untidy; finally, dirty and disgusting.


Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?


I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?


Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”


Our elders submitted and said ‘Thy will be done.’ How often had bitter resentment been stifled through sheer terror and an act of love — yes, in every sense, an act — put on to hide the operation?


Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent — non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it quite frankly, we don’t ask for Him?


One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has the thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another — quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want. You might as well say that when lovers have one another they will never want to read, or eat — or breathe….


At first I was very afraid of going to places where H. and I had been happy — our favourite pub, our favourite wood. But I decided to do it at once — like sending a pilot up again as soon as possible after he’s had a crash. Unexpectedly, it makes no difference. Her absence is no more emphatic in those places than anywhere else. It’s not local at all. I suppose that if one were forbidden all salt one wouldn’t notice it much more in any one food than in another. Eating in general would be different, every day, at every meal. It is like that. The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.


But no, that is not quite accurate. There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house. But don’t let me deceive myself. This body would become important to me again, and pretty quickly, if I thought there was anything wrong with it.


Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue.


Yet H. herself, dying of it, and well knowing the fact, said that she had lost a great deal of her old horror at it. When the reality came, the name and the idea were in some degree disarmed. And up to a point I very nearly understood. This is important. One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment that comes. All manner of ups and downs. Many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst. One never gets the total impact of what we call ‘the thing itself’. But we call it wrongly. The thing itself is simply all these ups and downs: the rest is a name or an idea.


It is incredible how much happiness, even how much gaiety, we sometimes had together after all hope was gone. How long, how tranquilly, how nourishingly, we talked together that last night!

Please get the book and read it. And the other one too. There is so much wisdom, insight and deep theology in his writings. And when it comes to dealing with something like cancer and the loss it brings, we can learn so much from the struggles of others, including that of Lewis.

[1880 words]

14 Replies to “Observing Grief”

  1. Bill, can you fill me/us in on why Joy is “H” and who is “C” please?

  2. Thank you Bill for your continued zeal in faithfully writing for our good Lord while grieving for the loss of your beloved wife, only very recently. May the Lord use you powerfully to comfort those in a similar situation like yours.

    Take care and I am a disabled person in Singapore, enjoying every piece you write, and as always.

  3. Thanks for sharing your life and your faith Bill, a blessing to us all, book is ordered…

  4. Agreed, Bill. Read ‘A grief observed ‘ quite some time ago and one sentence stuck when Lewis wrote of his deceased wife-‘I don’t want to romanticise her memory’ ie to make her what she wasn’t, to let he be really what she was to me.

  5. Sorry to hear about your wife passing away Bill. This is a very sad time for you and your family. My heart goes out to you and to the rest of your family and my condolences to you and to the rest of your family. The good thing is that she is in Heaven and you and the rest of your family will be reunited with her in Heaven and you and the rest of your family will be see her again in Heaven. God bless you and your family Bill.

    Regards John

  6. “The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

    I gave prepared eulogies at the funerals of Dad, then Mum a few years later. This is an excerpt from Dad’s:

    Dad lived a good, long, full life. He had a wonderful retirement from age 60; for example, he was still travelling and camping and fishing, in his early 80s, accompanied by his adored wife, and finally, he died … very old, loved, respected, well- nursed, still in his right mind, and he was READY to die …right to the end, he was brave, intelligent, and expressing his love and concern for my mother and the rest of us. Oh! He was more than ready to go, in the end; he hated being so inactive and helpless, in those last few weeks. He hated being unable to DO anything! Yet, he did not whinge. He was appreciative of the good care from nurses, doctors and family; Mum was there with him, every day, as always. He had many other visitors, too, because he was loved by so many. Even the busy nurses would find excuses to come to see if there was anything he needed, before they went home after their shifts in OTHER areas! They really liked him, in the wards.

    I saw Dad in a new way, in this last stay in hospital, because it was a new situation. I became even more proud of him than I was before. Years ago, I took Dad a bit “for granted”, as you do, when people are dependable, and especially when you are young. When Dad went to hospital, several weeks ago, I commented to Mum, how strange it was now that Dad was not at home with her. I said that Dad had been “like the sky”; always there, every day. We have to become accustomed to a whole new world; one that does not have my father in it! Oh; we will live on. We must. Yet everything must be revised, because Dad is not with us. It is like being transported to a new universe, especially for my mother.

    I think that Mum’s comment in the Death Notice said it well;

    “The light has gone out”.

    Yet, we will live on, in the world that now feels so strange.

    Goodbye, Dad.

  7. The movie Shadowlands tells the story of the marriage of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. It is the, at times, thorny road of daily life that tests even the finest expositions of the meaning of suffering in a universe where the Judge of all the earth is Lord. The Man of Sorrows, the Lord acquainted with grief is the One appointed by His Father to judge the world.

    We have a Great High Priest who feels with us when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable. He is that Rock who is higher than His, at times, beleaguered people, the Rock who follows His people in life’s wilderness experiences.

    Bill, I commend you and your family to the comfort of our Lord.

    2 What though my joys and comforts die,
    The Lord, my Saviour, liveth!
    What though the darkness gather round,
    Songs in the night! he giveth!
    No storm can shake my inmost calm
    While to that refuge clinging;
    Since Christ is Lord of Heaven and earth
    How can I keep from singing?

    3 I lift mine eyes, the cloud grows thin,
    I see the blue above it;
    And day by day this pathway smooths
    Since first I learned to love it.
    The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
    A fountain ever springing;
    All things are mine since I am his;
    How can I keep from singing? – Robert Lowry

  8. Thank you so much for recommending these books. I did wonder about C.S. Lewis myself, given the story of his life with Joy was so well told in Shadowlands. I will certainly read and reflect on them and take Lewis’ own testimony of his dark night of the soul to heart. In preparing to say goodbye to my own beloved Ernest, I have found these prayers to be highly useful to me. I share them here in case they might provide similar solace and reassurance that our Lord and Saviour indeed still walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death: http://www.philadelphiacatholiccemetaries.com/blog/catholic-prayers-for-grief

  9. Take your time – your strength and focus on Jesus is so strong Bill. C.S. Lewis also was so open about his faith throughout his grief. Hugs, prayers.

  10. We are deeply sorry for your loss. Thank God that this is a temporary parting and you will be together again in Heaven. We pray that you feel the Comforter very close to you at this time.
    Bless you.

  11. Dear Bill,
    Our prayers and love come your way through our loving Father and His Son Jesus, Who endured all these terrors on our behalf. May He hold you and your family close as you grieve…in hope!
    Much love,
    Jim and Julie Hess

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