I recently set off on an impromptu retreat in Mexico with a friend. We both needed some self-care but also went to spend time with her Grandfather, Gerald, who lives in Baja. He had just passed the one-year mark since the loss of his best friend and wife of 26 years. Cassie was the love of his life. The two enjoyed an early retirement of traveling, laughing, playing cards and exploring the ends of the earth before settling down in their modest trailer home in a small village on the Pacific coast of Baja.
Since Cassie’s passing, members of Gerald’s family had visited a few times and he had made a few trips up to San Diego, but we were his first stateside visitors in four months. It was clear, even though I had never met him before, that he was in the midst of processing his loss and grieving. One year isn’t that long, after all, to get used to a life full of space that was never there before.
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I happened to bring with me A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis, which had been on my reading list for about a year. It’s a short book dense with insight on C.S.’ personal experience of losing his wife, ‘H’. Taken from Lewis’ journal entries after his wife passed, the book journeys through sadness, despair, disbelief, a questioning of God, a questioning of life, and goes on to touch a deeper understanding of the relationship between life and death. One of the most poignant passages I could see ever present during our visit:
“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had ‘H’ for their object. Now their target is gone.”
Cassie had been the one to tend to the garden to the yard, to the plants, to the household scrubbing and tidying. Without her there, Gerald had no motivation to do these things. Each task was only a reminder of her absence.
After a few days with Gerald, learning more about his loss, I realized I had actually brought the book to Mexico for him. C.S. Lewis had a way of describing his thoughts and feelings in A Grief Observed in a way that felt as if it must be universal to this type of loss. I had a feeling it would bring him some comfort. I finished the book mid-week and gave it to him, and he had finished the book himself by the next day. Through the following days of his sharing with us, and our chats about the book, we could see he was turning a corner. He had begun to pick up the pieces by the time we departed, with a renewed commitment to life. Even still, as grief is often unpredictable, we all knew we were experiencing only a timestamp on his journey of love and loss.
“…for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience with love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.”
Prior to reading A Grief Observed, my closest experience with the loss of a spouse was through my mom losing my dad in 2002. I had watched my mother mourn and grieve and get back up and move forward and laugh and smile and fall and grieve again, get angry, get quiet, become removed, rejoin community, all in ebbs and flows across ten years after my father died. In fact, I lived with her for the three months immediately following his passing and if I hadn’t been experiencing my own grief, perhaps I could have observed her with more wonder, with more understanding. A Grief Observed truly helped shed some light on my mom’s experience of losing her husband, on Gerald’s of losing his wife, and on my own, perhaps, someday to come.
A Grief Observed
by C. S. Lewis