Poi si torno eterna fontana
(And the she returned to the Eternal Fount)– Dante , quoted by C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I finally finished Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I mean I literally just finished the book. I felt compelled to see it through after coming across it last night. My immediate thoughts are – Wow! What a raw, honest, introspective, eloquent journey with Lewis through one of his darkest valleys.
As I am ever the optimist, midway through the reading I found myself praying and hoping Lewis would find light and peace and hope. Yet in those same breaths and thoughts I was thankful he was honest and bold to share the truth of pain, sorrow, and anguish. As he said when he married H. the two were one flesh and losing her was an amputation. His doubts of God, reality , and his own faith were very real struggles he did not disguise. It is often so with us when our souls are torn.
Every thing inside of me wanted to reach through those words to the hurting author and just make it better. As a caregiver by nature, a nurse practitioner by profession I have taken care of many with physical and emotional pain. I have dedicated 26 years of my life thus far doing this because I love to help people. I especially love to help hurting people and what the caregiver wants most of all is to ease the pain. We wish we could eliminate any suffering at all, but in my many years in medicine, I have encountered the reality that sometimes you just cannot.
In losing his beloved wife, Lewis faced with the reality that “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it.” This is true and hard. The question of pain is the one that will place any defender of the faith on shaky ground. The harsh reality of grief is one that we all have or will meet in time.
There is nothing we can do with suffering, except to suffer it…C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Just as it is true in one’s own grief journey , Lewis’ record of his wrestling with grief leaves so much to unpack. There are the issues of faith, marriage, relationships , pain, loneliness, lament, and the nature and character of God himself. While this was a first completion of reading it through, I doubt it will be a last as this brief 94 pages leaves so much to ruminate. On the surface however, let’s just talk about the grief process as a whole.
In our modern western society we are uncomfortable with the subject of grief. I feel this is because first and foremost it is hard. In facing the bereaved we confront our own grief. It is a reality of life that we do not want to dwell on. So we don’t talk about it. We don’t learn about it. We don’t know how to walk with others through it. So inadvertently we leave the walking wounded limping because we are paralyzed by the whole topic, process, and situation.
Because we don’t talk about it or dwell on it , and we sure don’t dedicate time to study it , we don’t learn anything and thus we don’t teach. We don’t really know how to help someone in the raw pit of grief. And when we do attempt to help, we often lean on old adages that are intended to soothe or comfort. You know the ones we have all heard.
They are in a better place. At least they are no longer suffering. They are with God. God will use this for good. And the worst told to my brother and his wife after they learned at 28 weeks of pregnancy their precious Lydia was with us no more. At least you are young and you can have more children….
Did that person even think before they said that? And as a nurse practitioner I am ashamed to admit it was healthcare professional that told them this. So none of us are immune to the well meaning , empty adages that leave the bereaved feeling worse.
Let us just consider a few of these and look on the other side of the coin:
They are in a better place.– So I am selfish because I want them still here with me.
At least.... Here is good advice one of our guest instructors in nursing school shared. NEVER start a sentence with at least. It just doesn’t help.
They are with God.– I hope and pray they are. Ok maybe I know if anyone could be they are, but isn’t God everywhere and it does not change that I still want them here with me?
When my niece died it was then I truly came to learn just how poorly we handle grief as a society. I did not want to be like that healthcare provider leaving them with adages that only added to the pain. I was at a loss. I remember going to the library and bookstores looking for something on grief. This was in 2010. There was very little to be had. There is probably more now than there was then, but it is still lacking. My hopes in finding a book on grief was not to ease my pain or my brother and sister-in-law’s pain in losing their daughter. I however was just hoping to learn how to walk along side them. How am I am even supposed to be there for someone I love dearly who lost their daughter? I did not know what to say or do. I will attribute my actions solely to divine intervention and definitely not my own wisdom or merit. I turned in desperation to the book of Job.
Job’s friends came to him, wept with him, grieved with him and sat in silence for seven days and nights. In fact if you continue the story you will see that when they speak, that is when things go downhill. Silence is uncomfortable. Allowing ourselves to enter into the grief with a person is hard and uncomfortable. We want to say something because we feel powerless and we want to make better a thing that we cannot. Even the most careful chosen words often fail when it comes to soothing the anguished soul.
I remember on the anniversary of my stillborn niece’s delivery, Aug 1. I was in Honduras on a mission trip. It was our 2nd year after we lost her. I wanted to acknowledge her and my love for her and my love for her parents and acknowledge their grief. What I posted had in some way been mistaken. This led to a reply that showed me they were hurt. I was more hurt that I hurt them and that they mistook my well intended post. So as I stated, even the best intended words can come up mighty short to the grieving soul.
Since that time I have experienced much loss. The good news is I now have heard of things like Grief Share. We actually have a group that meets at our church. I have been transparent with my grief and I see others are doing the same. There are efforts made to improve how we approach grief in our society, but I will say this: we still have a long way to go.
Lewis writes in A Grief Observed that he hoped his jottings would prove a map of the state of sorrow. He goes on to say, ” sorrow , however turns out to be not a state, but a process. It needs not a map, but a history.” Lewis’ history of his early grief process offers insight and allows us some understanding. Another book by Mary Beth Chapman, Choosing to See offers this peek into the reality of a mother’s loss of a child and those early days of her grief journey. Listening to the thoughts and words of those deep in the pit of grief is the only way we can being to understand any of this or how we can help and when it is our turn to be in that pit, how we can cope and endure.
This is the foundation of how we help the bereaved. We will love and lose. We will grieve and by God’s grace we will be comforted. As we are comforted in time he will allow us to help others with the comfort we received. I lost my Daddy July 4, 2021. A friend recently lost her father. I reached out to her as one who does not know her exact pain, but as one can parallel as I too have lost my Daddy and so relatively recently. I can tell you in that at this stage in my grief process the ability to help a fellow sojourner fresh on the road of grief offered some healing deep in my soul that is unexplainable.
Observing Lewis’ grief over his beloved H. has allowed me to add another layer of understanding of how others process grief. It allows me to contemplate some deeper components of the grief process where faith and reason are intertwined. Coming out the other side of this first read, I feel like I understand Lewis more. I feel like there has been some progress in my own grief through the reading. Additionally, I can now relate to others with a different personality than my own as they wade through grief. Most importantly, I feel compelled to keep the conversation about grief going. The aim is that we may grow in our compassion, cognizance and competence in the matter of grief and the grieving. Though the walking wounded will still limp down the road of grief, we will be better prepared to travel alongside and offer some hope in knowing they do not make this journey alone.