My experience of loss during the holiday season is no doubt similar to many others. Mother’s cancer had returned in the fall and she went into hospice care. Our twins were turning five in December, we had just sold our house, and we were moving to Washington at the end of January. It was an exciting and busy time in our household. Nonetheless, over the holidays I made the trip to see her one final time, even though we lived 12-hours away. Candice and the twins stayed in Staunton. At the end of a two-day visit, I gave her a kiss, said my last goodbyes, sat in the driveway and cried, and then drove the 12 hours back to Virginia on New Year’s Eve. My brain was a jumble of thoughts and emotions.
Mom, who had turned 68 in December, died early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 1998. Even now, 25 years later, I’ve never celebrated the new year quite the same.
For many, the holiday season is full of anticipation and joy. Others face the season coping with loss and grief. The remembrance of the death of a parent, spouse, lover, sibling, child, or friend can bring back difficult memories. Those facing life after divorce or separation, coping with the loss of a job, or living with a disease that puts a question mark over the future may also be grieving in ways seen and unseen.
Regrets and grief can plague us at any time of the year. But for some, the holidays are a time when regrets are easy to recall and often hard to dismiss. At this time when those around us appear happy and full of joy, grief can suddenly take over our souls.
For too many, the darkness of the coming winter — perhaps evoking the “mad midnight moments” — takes on personal overtones.
In her generous and perceptive memoir Lost & Found, author Kathryn Schulz briefly mentions the book where the “mad midnight” quote is found. Written by a well-known twentieth-century scholar and author, it doesn’t garner the attention of many of his most popular works, perhaps because of its unflinching honesty around loss of faith during times of grief. Spurred by Schulz’s comment, I was reading it within a week.
A Grief Observed (1961) by C.S. Lewis is a transcript of his journal from the time following the death of his wife, the American poet Helen Joy Davidman. It is brief, poignant, and honest. Lewis, the well-known Christian apologist and writer of the celebrated Chronicles of Narnia, works through his grief, the loss of meaning and faith, and his efforts to regain his footing in this world. It is highly personal, so much so that author Madeleine L’Engle writes in a thoughtful foreword that Lewis helped her understand that each experience of grief is unique. Still, there is a universality to it as well, as what Lewis describes feels so much like what so many have gone through in our period of mass death worldwide. A Grief Observed is focused on one man and woman and — at the same time — all men and women.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” Lewis writes as his journal opens. However, because these journals were hand-written notes, Lewis will make a statement only to circle back a few pages later to approach the issue anew. He returns to the feeling of fear to say in a latter passage that it is less that he is afraid, but that he feels as though he has been left in suspense of something, giving life “a permanently provisional feeling.”
Like Schulz, Lewis has no time for euphemisms and mushy thinking. “She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?” And he reminds his readers not to speak about the “consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats.
No one can say what happens to the dead but, as L’Engle notes, “The important thing is that we do not know. It is not in the realm of proof. It is in the realm of love.”
If each grieving experience is unique, they are all nonetheless processes. Feelings and thought patterns emerge to be sorted through and reconsidered again and again. Lewis, in one such instance, notes, “You are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left miles behind.” There is an exhaustion to the process.
Lewis eventually works out his thoughts on faith and death, but he stops writing in the end only because he has run out of fresh notebooks and refuses to buy any more for this project. Grief can last a lifetime, changing shape and form but always present. Lewis makes the case, however, that it is only by facing grief head on that we can move forward.
The darkness of night leads to dawn and a new day, where new possibilities await. It will be a day different from the one just completed. And we can begin anew.
Reading A Grief Observed, notes L’Engle, “is to share not only in C.S. Lewis’s grief, but in his understanding of love, and that is richness indeed.”
More to come…
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image by Claudia Martinez from Pixabay.