"Her Absence is Like the Sky:" On C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed

Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was no stranger to loss. At the age of nine, he lost his mother to cancer. After fighting in the trenches of WWI, he kept a promise to a fallen comrade to take care of the dead man’s mother, but soon the relationship with the woman grew into a romance. Lewis experienced grief, once again, when she died. But it was the death of Joy Davidman, a woman with which he struck up a correspondence in his later years and eventually married, that proved to be the loss he almost didn't survive. When Joy died of cancer in 1960, Lewis poured out his emotions in the short, compact A Grief Observed. In the text, Lewis grapples with questions of faith, but even a secular reader can relate to what he writes about grief, mourning, and the pain of losing a loved one.

Several times, Lewis refers to the isolation of grief. He writes that "An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t." The pain of losing Joy alienates him from a world that continues as though nothing has happened, a world that simply does not know what to say to a grieving man. Lewis elaborates on his separation from other people by observing that “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.” Lewis has no desire to engage with the outside world; his grief is all-consuming. As Lewis explains so eloquently about Joy’s death, “The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” How do we go on living when a loss is so devastating as to alter every aspect of our lives? How do we live with such absence? Lewis offers no answers, no instruction manual on how to deal with loss, all he can do is write and, in the act of putting his grief on the page, lessen the fear, the sorrow, and the isolation.

However, an ongoing struggle for Lewis throughout the text is the very act of writing itself. He must constantly justify why he is writing about grief at all. He states that “By writing it all down (all?-no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it. That’s how I defend it to H.” (In the book, Joy is referred to as “H.”) Lewis was a writer. Why, then, did he feel the need to defend engaging in an activity that was both his profession and passion? Above all, Lewis fears that A Grief Observed focuses more on himself than it does on Joy, that his personal anguish overshadows the suffering she endured when she was alive and his memories of her. He writes that “For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appal me. From the way I've been talking anyone would think that H.’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself. Her point of view seems to have dropped out of sight.” He goes on to remind himself that “I must think more about H. and less about myself. Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always.” Herein lies the contradiction of grief--it’s about the dead but it’s also about ourselves, about what the death of another person has done to us. Lewis reproves himself for not writing more about Joy but her very death, her omnipresent absence, is always there.  He is always writing about her even if she is not explicitly mentioned. She haunts the text because she is the source, the root, of the grief. She is in every word he writes.

Another concern of Lewis's is how he reconstructs Joy in his mind, how death alters our memory of a departed loved one. He worries that his grief will “have substituted for the real woman a mere doll to be blubbered over.” His fear of losing an authentic idea of Joy echoes his earlier anxiety about excising Joy from the text. Writing is a form of preservation. If he doesn't write about her, then how can he properly remember her? Other forms of preservation are no good either, as Lewis writes that “I have no photograph of her that’s any good. I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination.” So early into his loss and he is already losing Joy again, losing the specificity, the corporeality of this woman he loved. What does remain is her voice. Lewis records that “her voice is still vivid. The remembered voice--that can turn me at any moment to a whimpering child.”

Lewis struggles with the absence he mentioned earlier, the absence that is everywhere, and how can he fill it? How can he reconstruct Joy when she is no longer physically present? Don’t all people confront the same challenge after a loss? The dead are gone, they leave behind a literal hole in our lives. The hole is the space their bodies once filled. We have no skin to touch, no arms to grasp, no hands to hold. The sensuous experience of a person is lost forever and no words or photographs can ever do justice to the tactile reality of another human being. The substitutions are simply not good enough. As Lewis puts it, “I want H., not something that is like her.” The real thing is all he wants and it’s the one thing he cannot have.

At times, Lewis’s writing is unbearably raw and full of an intense aching. He writes, “You tell me, ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back.” Lewis is in the depths of anguish and bares his soul. He also questions the point of it all, “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? What does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.” Grief itself seems pointless to Lewis. Nothing in the present moment can alter the tragedy of the past. But what Lewis wrote does matter because he charted the development of his own grief and, in so doing, showed the unpredictability and fluidity of grief, how grieving comes in different forms and changes by the day, even by the hour. Just when he thinks he knows grief, or understands it, or thinks he’s better and free from it, a memory comes and he is, once again, leveled.

At one point, Lewis compares Joy’s death to the amputation of a leg that changes the body forever but does not threaten its survival. He writes that “At present I am learning to get about on crutches, Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” However, later, he is forced to admit the inadequacy of the amputation metaphor, that it was too simplistic for a condition that never truly ends. He amends his earlier statement by writing that “I was wrong to say the stump was recovering from the pain of amputation. I was deceived because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one.” Lewis hobbled along on his “wooden leg” for only a short period of time. Three years after the death of Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis died at the age of 64.