As I near the fourth anniversary of Kevin’s passing, I’m revisiting C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I rarely read a book a second time, even one I like very much. Kevin loved to read his favorite books again and again, as do our children, but not me. Reading Lewis again seems different, though. Just as he observed his grieving process—especially as it related to his faith and the steadfastness of that faith—I have attempted to observe and chronicle mine. So reading the book now is much different than when I read it a year ago or four years ago.
This “meta” experience isn’t easy, and I think, were I not one who loves to write, I probably wouldn’t be constantly asking myself how I feel about things, or taking stock of where I am on this journey. As Lewis said, “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer." Regardless of this possibility of added pain caused by reflection on the pain, it has been helpful to have Lewis’ thoughts with me as I travel, and to read them again from a different place than when last I picked up this little book.
I relate to many of the thoughts and examinations in the book, not just about grief, but about memory, love, and belief. As with the very best books and essays, it causes me to self-reflect; to ask myself not only about where I am in the process, but also about feelings and emotions that I’ve had most of my life. I have experienced a significant amount of loss in the last five years—Kevin, both of my parents, our minister, a very close friend and mentor, two other long-time friends, the daughter of a very dear friend, the sons of two other close friends. It is impossible to make sense of any one of these losses alone, much less when listed all together. It is quite an understatement, perhaps, to say that grief is just a part of my life now.
As the evenings begin to have a tinge of chill and each day becomes just a moment or two shorter, grief begins to pass over me like a cold-front moving across a weather map. I hear a school bus out on a practice-run through the neighborhood and it triggers the memory of the events of September 7, 2010 (the first day of the school year) as though they happened yesterday. Over time, grief’s hold loosens a bit, then gathers force and becomes more powerful, only to diminish again, sometimes for days, sometimes now for many weeks. Lewis was genius at finding metaphors for grief that so accurately describe its ebb and flow, its cycles, and its power:
“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.”
“Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment.”
“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. ..If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains…perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I’ll be given a wooden leg. But I will never be a biped again.”
Lewis’s wife Joy Davidman died of cancer and he writes eloquently and accurately of his inability to share her pain as completely as he wishes he could. As for grief after her death, Lewis writes about the days when he feels better, and the guilt and shame that come along with that, the fear of losing memories. Lewis is coming to terms with his faith as much as with his grief, asking the question of where God is in this misery. His words, his doubts, his own inability to reconcile, they come to me like a cool drink.
If I were to characterize my own feelings of grief’s visitations into my life, I suppose my metaphors would be more current, and I know they would be far less beautifully wrought than Lewis’.
The early grief, I would say, is like having a plastic bag over your head. It causes an odd and exhausting vigilance as you live somewhere between wanting to grab at every bit of life and wanting to succumb. There is a sense of clawing, of clamminess, a shortness of breath. I recognize Lewis’ feelings like fear, along with an utter confusion and disbelief as to why this happened, how it could happen, why life appears to be going on for everyone else. It is surprising how debilitating is the inability to make sense of anything.
The next phase is like walking through life with something akin to an anvil chained to your leg. It is a heavy weight that causes physical aches, deep exhaustion, frustration. But given the opportunity to unbolt the lock and release the weight from its attachment to you, of course you say no. To release the weight, you fear, is to give up memories, to turn away, to say a final goodbye, which cannot happen, and would be an equal loss all over again. It is a time of slow trudging, when many offer to release you from the heft, or hope for you that it will happen soon, but you wave their thoughts away, shoo them from their attempts to remove the chain. You cling equally to memory and pain and are confounded at how much you need both.
As more time passes, the anvil becomes a heavy pack, and then a cloak. A bit lighter, less suffocating, at times even as comforting as your grandmother’s quilts. Like the quilt, there are different fabrics—still some anger, some confusion, patches of sadness. You study the stitching, the threads that link past to present, you notice they continue on, as do you. Memories become more accurate (we did fight, didn’t we? Yes, there was that time he made me angry, or another time I caused him to not speak to me for days). Reality sinks in, but still you wonder, how have two years passed, then three?
Then one day, you awake and find the grief has somehow become cellular, a part of your blood and skin and hair; a separate DNA, but one that makes up your being as completely as that which you were born with. It still occasionally brings sadness, loneliness, or bits of rage. But you are alright with the fact that a song or photo or the flash of a hummingbird near your shoulder will make you pensive. You understand that the best parts of your life will be shrouded in something called "bittersweet." But it’s ok. Like Lewis’ one-legged man, you are different, never again to be the person you were before, but thinking that you want to learn to walk (and laugh, and dream, and love) again.
Reading has always been a big part of my life and it has helped in multiple ways through grief: to understand the universal truths of the process or just to inhabit someone else's experience for a little while. In addition to A Grief Observed, I’ve also revisited old favorites like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, and James Agee’s lovely A Death in the Family. I refer often to Anne Lamott’s, Stitches, Plan B, and Help, Thanks, Wow (and wish I could have her on speed dial). I’ve also found great comfort in Roger Rosenblatt’s two books, Making Toast and Kayak Morning, the very powerful book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, Love and Death by Forrest Church, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, and both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights by Joan Didion; all nonfiction. I’ve also enjoyed and have been helped along by a variety of fiction works like The Translator, by Leila Aboulela, Cheryl Strayed’s Torch, A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, Doug Trevor’s short stories The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space, John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Gilbert’s poetry collection Refusing Heaven, and Volumes One and Two of The Cancer Poetry Project. I’ve yet to get to Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, but I hope to do so soon.
None of these books mirror my exact experience. Instead, they expand my own awareness of how we all deal with feelings provoked by death, loss, and grief, and how we all manage to get through.
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