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The boredom and the fear of grief

What C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed can tell us about our year of loss.

C.S. Lewis, author of A Grief Observed, stands in a field near Magdalen College at Oxford University, England, in 1946.
Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In this terrible pandemic year, it has been oddly difficult to find ways to talk about the onslaught of bitter and unrelenting grief.

More than half a million Americans are dead. And even if you don’t personally know anyone who died, you still have to reckon with the loss of the world that used to exist. But as a nation, America has been afforded little space to stop and feel the grief that comes with the tragedy of this moment in history.

One of the best literary examinations of grief that I know of is C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. This slim volume is a transcript of Lewis’s journal after the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, and in its pages Lewis tracks the process of his own mourning: its repetitions and its strange boredoms, its agonizing small moments. Lewis is a precise and scrupulously honest chronicler of his own thoughts, and the result is a portrait of a mind in the throes of very personal grief, which is why it is perhaps strange that what he describes feels so similar to the grief of living through an era of mass death worldwide.

Lewis and Davidman had a brief marriage. They met when he was in his 60s and she in her 40s, and they married, at first, for immigration purposes: Davidman, an American-born poet, wanted to stay with her son in the UK, and a marriage would help her do so. She and Lewis were close friends — before she even moved to the UK, they had corresponded about books and theology — and so Lewis agreed to marry her out of what he described to a friend as “a pure matter of friendship and expediency.”

Davidman and Lewis did not consider themselves to be truly married after their civil ceremony in 1956, in part because they weren’t married in a church. And since Davidman was divorced, and the Church of England did not recognize divorces at the time, she and Lewis did not expect to ever have a wedding the church would consider legitimate. They lived in separate houses.

Then Davidman was diagnosed with advanced and incurable metastatic cancer. She was told she had limited time left. And faced with this news, she and Lewis decided they were so in love that they needed a church wedding after all. They got a deathbed dispensation from an Anglican priest and were married from Davidman’s hospital bed in 1957.

Not long after their hospital wedding, Davidman’s cancer briefly went into remission. She would die in 1960, after three years of true marriage to Lewis.

It’s Lewis’s love for Davidman, whom he refers to as H., that animates A Grief Observed. As a novelist, Lewis can be strikingly bad at writing adult women (the biggest exception, Orual of Till We Have Faces, is thought to have been based on Davidman). But in the privacy of his journal, he is heart-wrenchingly specific about the depths of his admiration and affection for his wife.

“Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he writes. “It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening.” And so part of Lewis’s grief becomes his fear that he will lose his sense of what made Davidman specifically herself. In memory she cannot surprise him, so he feels that he must necessarily find himself replacing her with “a mere doll to be blubbered over.”

Fear breathes throughout this book about grief. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” Lewis writes at the opening of his journal. Later, he will clarify this sense. It is less that he is afraid, he determines, than that he feels as though he has been left in suspense of something. “It gives life a permanently provisional feeling,” he frets.

But eventually Lewis works out the origins of this sense of suspense: “From the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual,” he says. “Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone.”

It is not just Davidman whom Lewis is mourning, but a whole life, a whole sense of identity, a world in which he was a husband and had a partner. Now that Davidman is dead, an entire world is gone. It will never come back. It will never be the same for him. And the world will never be the same for any of us, either.

As time wears on, Lewis finds himself overwhelmed by the problem of needing to constantly think about his own grief, how inescapable it is. “Part of misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection,” he muses, “the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.” He wonders whether the journal he is keeping might be a little bit morbid.

But he finds it impossible to focus on anything besides his grief and his work. He can’t bring himself to answer letters or to even shave. “I loathe the slightest effort,” he says, in a line that will surely be familiar to anyone who has found themselves staring at an untouched inbox as we process the anniversary of the month the world shut down.

Lewis was a committed Christian, and much of A Grief Observed involves him grappling with his faith and the horror of how little it offers him in his grief. “Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable,” he writes. “And how or why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness? Why did it produce things like us who can see it, and seeing it, recoil in loathing?” How can Lewis reconcile a God who is good with the reality of his own suffering?

A few paragraphs later, he doubles back. “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.”

This circling back again is characteristic of Lewis’s experience of grief, and of grief more generally. Again and again the same feelings and thought patterns emerge; again and again they must be sorted through and reconsidered. “You are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left miles behind,” says Lewis, with detached exhaustion.

And so when A Grief Observed ends, it is not because Lewis has, at last, accepted his grief, nor is it because he has found a way to move on from the loss of Davidman. It ends because Lewis has run out of blank notebooks in his house, and he refuses to buy any specifically for this purpose. Otherwise, he says, “There’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day.”

Grief never ends. It only changes its shape and allows us to find new ways of living with it.

We may be living with the grief of the past year for the rest of our lives. But it is only by looking at our grief straight on that we can ever hope to find our way through it.