C.S. Lewis died years before I was even born, but yet I feel as if that old crusty British academic and I have a long and complex history together. He was my first literary love. I fell in love with his world of Narnia, and with so many of the characters (Lucy will always be my favorite). A world of imagination. A world of fantasy. The type of world that usually would’ve been banned.
Fantasy was strictly banned because it was considered a gateway to the occult. The Chronicles of Narnia were only allowed because C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian and his books contained a crap ton of Christian metaphors. The fact that Aslan represented Jesus and that that little rat Edmond who sold his siblings out for some gross British candy (come on, Edmond, it wasn’t even something good like cookie dough ice cream) represented me was pointed out and discussed in length in order to be sure I hadn’t missed the symbolism. Aslan died for Edmond. Or, how it felt to me: I was Edmond; I killed Aslan. (I recently packed up my collection of Narnia reads and set them to Goodwill because I knew the whole You Killed Aslan thing would set off my Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. And besides, I’ve gone for the harder stuff. Now I read things like Harry Potter.)
I loved Narnia and fantasy and magical creatures so much that I named my first cat, Lewis, after C.S. Lewis. And my next cat, Jack, also after C.S. Lewis. His world is imaginative and wonderful in so many ways, and it was also the only fantasy world that I had access to.
Later on, when I was experimenting with things like The Five Points of Calvinism when other teens and college students were experimenting sexually, I read through his Christian Classics (Mere Christianity, and so forth). I owned a pretty matching set of all his works that I displayed proudly on my shelf.
But things changed, I changed, and I tend to not agree much with C.S. these days, which is fine. And some of his books are trigger-y so I don’t plan on rereading them, but that’s not really his fault. It’s more the context they were discussed in and the way they were presented (like the whole Edmond thing). But despite clearing out most of my books by old C.S. (and so many other Christian books from my past lifetime), there’s one that I won’t be parting with.
I first read A Grief Observed, a collection of C.S. Lewis’ raw journal entries on the grief of losing his wife, when I found out that I was losing my dad, one inch at a time, to a horrible brain disorder. He describes grief as “a long valley, a winding valley where every bend may reveal a totally new landscape” (p. 60). And I’ve reread this tiny book several times since when I’ve needed a companion along that winding valley.
Honestly, it’s the only book on the subject of grief that I’ve found personally helpful. It’s not a How to Grieve Correctly manual. It doesn’t offer advice. It doesn’t even offer comfort. It tells me that I’m not alone. And when I’m in the middle of darkness and grief, being told that I’m not alone is the best thing that anyone can say.
Sometimes I wish more people talked and wrote about darkness — the things that keep us up at night clinging to our bed with terror or leave us so frozen as a riptide of emotion pulls us out to sea that we can’t even move when the alarm goes off in the morning. The things that nearly drown us. The things that give us scars. And the scars we hide so well. I wish darkness wasn’t such a taboo subject. This is why I still love A Grief Observed: C.S. Lewis isn’t afraid to talk about darkness.
It can be awkward to talk about dark things. We want quick fixes. We want people to get over it so that they (but more importantly we) can go back to life as usual. And I think Christians can be especially guilty of this. I know I’ve had more than a few well-meaning but nevertheless painful Bible verses thrown at me in the name of theological comfort over the years. But despite his deep faith C.S. Lewis not only doesn’t fall into this, he actually find it extremely unhelpful. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly,” he writes. “Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consultation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand” (p. 25).
There is no getting back to life as usual after a major loss. Sure, you eventually reach some sort of normalcy, some sort of rhythm to life. But it’s a new normal, a normal that now has a hole the shape of a wife, father, sister, grandfather, aunt, or friend — and always will. This makes it “hard to be patient with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death … You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.” He beautifully continues, “I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?” (p. 15).
I appreciate how candidly C.S. Lewis describes how loss impacts everyday life, especially social interactions. 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 it if they do, and if they don’t” (p. 10).
C.S. Lewis then goes on to say that he likes “best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers” (p. 10-11). Grief can leave you feeling so isolated but somehow just knowing I’m not the only one who has ever felt as if I needed — or even wanted — to be isolated off in a special Bereaved-Only Settlement in order to avoid the awkwardness and pain that can come with merely saying hello always makes me feel less alone when I need to reread this little book.
So that’s my recommended read for April. What books have been there for you during those dark seasons?