Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Grief Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

This is how C. S. Lewis opens his book, A Grief Observed.  That opening line made me catch my breath.  I am still stunned every time I read or hear the words of someone whose sadness matches mine (no matter how many blogs or books I read, it's still a bit of a shock each time).

I have been reading a lot of books about grief.  Most recently, I bought Lewis's A Grief Observed.  This is the same C. S. Lewis of Narnia fame, the guy who started out as an atheist and moves through agnosticism to ultimately end up being Christian.  It's a short book, essentially it's the journal that he kept after he lost his beloved wife to cancer.  He married her knowing she was sick, knowing that their time was limited.  But that is not to say that it made her loss easier, the fact that it was not unexpected.  Losing a spouse is not the same as losing a child, but (as I've written before) I think grief is more alike than it is different.  As a Christian philosopher, he faces the same struggles and doubts and agonies that I think most us who have any experience with grief have also faced.  Far from relying on his faith as a solution to this problem of grief, he speaks honestly of its shortcomings:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly.  Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively.  But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.

His grief for his wife is palpable.  And religion is little consolation because no matter what our spiritual beliefs, we all know that what happens after this life is not the same as this life.  Maybe you can argue it's better, but it's Not.The.Same.  And all we want--we who have lost babies we love so much--is to recapture the past and get it all back, in all the messy, earthly reality of motherhood.  Any other version of events is no consolation because unless we have a lifetime with our babies here, nothing we might have will ever be quite enough.  And that is something that no religious faith can change.  This isn't a crisis of belief; it's just the reality of it all.

Lewis feels this too, despite his intense and learned faith: 

For that is what we should all like.  The happy past restored.  And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into the empty air.

* * *

I appreciate Lewis's willingness to express feelings that I had never wanted to acknowledge or admit even to myself.  Like this:

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don't really mind so much, not so very much, after all.  Love is not the whole of a man's life.  I was happy before I ever met H.  I've plenty of what are called 'resources.'  People get over these things.  Come, I shan't do so badly.  One is ashamed to listen to this voice, but it seems for a little to be making out a good case. 

Before I read this, I hadn't even realized that I was doing it, too.  I try, sometimes, to convince myself that this isn't such a bad thing.  "It could be worse..." my brain starts to say to me.  And my imagination goes crazy thinking about everything I still have to lose, even though I felt that all was lost when Eliza died.  Thinking about how it could be worse?  Well, that way madness lies.

And yet, I'm glad to know that there is someone else who has tried (and failed) to absorb such a loss by saying "Well, maybe this isn't such a terrible thing."  It's a futile attempt to feel better, and a desperate one.  Also, (if you're wondering) it doesn't really work.  But that doesn't stop me from trying, and then feeling ashamed of it.

* * *  

Many people talk about the death of a child as an amputation, of cutting off a part of oneself, burying it in the ground, and trying to continue without it.  Lewis felt much the same after the loss of his wife.  He offers the analogy of a wounded man whose leg is cut off: 

After that operation, either the wounded stump heals or the man dies.  If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop.  Presently, he'll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg.  He has 'got over it.'  But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man.  There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it.  Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different.  His whole way of life will be changed.  All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off.  Duties too.  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.

This metaphor is all too real for many of us, who would have gladly given a leg, an arm, our lives, to bring back a child.  Instead, we did sacrifice the part of ourselves that made us whole and happy and we are left with nothing to show for it except a crippling grief.

One would think this is enough suffering, right?  Acknowledging one's one-leggedness is surely a recognition of the permanence of grief.  And yet, we the bereaved are a group who becomes quickly attached to the masochism of our sadness.  Lewis articulates the anxiety about surfacing from grief that many of us can relate to after a certain passage of time:

Still, there's no denying that in some sense I 'feel better,' and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one's unhappiness.

We've all felt this, haven't we?  Shame follows laughter.  A momentary distraction has guilt on its heels.  Lewis pushes this further, and asks what is behind it.  What gives us this perverse desire to be a martyr to misery? 

Partly, no doubt, vanity.  We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.

I hate this.  I know I'm vain enough to wish even now I didn't have a muffin-top in my pre-pregnancy jeans, but I bristle at the idea that my grief is driven by vanity.  At the same time, I get why it could be true. 

Online communities for bereaved parents have been an incomparable source of comfort and consolation, and without the wisdom of those women who are experiencing this same great loss, my grief would have been even more overwhelming.  At the same time, the comments there have sometimes made me question my own grieving process.  I have to keep in mind that these communities are a place that many of us turn to when we are at our lowest, darkest points.  And what we end up posting is probably not an accurate reflection of what we feel most of the time.  I know grief can be complicated by depression, illness, and stress.  But even though I know all of this, sometimes I question myself when I read comments from women who are 11 months out, 2 1/2 years out, 4 years out, who write about their grief as though it is as shocking and vivid and unescapable as ever before.

Am I sad enough?  I wonder.  Even though I wake everyday feeling hungover from grief, even I still have to make myself eat, and even though I've cried everyday for nearly three months, I wonder if it's enough to honor the extent of my loss.  I think sometimes that I don't feel as lost as this woman who is writing about her grief, and her baby died over a year ago.  What does that say about me?

Believe me, I know it's not a competition of grief--I don't want to suggest that--these communities are kind and welcoming and compassionate and eager to acknowledge that everyone grieves differently, that hope is still attainable.  But when I read about someone else's pain and love for their child, if I'm not feeling overwhelmed by my own grief, I suddenly kind of want to be.  As though love can be measured by the sustainability of grief.

I want my pain to be measured on the grandest of scales.  I want to prove my love for my baby by being the most tragic bereaved mother of all!  I am more like Miss Havisham than you are!  Maybe I should become the crazy lady with a towel baby...  These thoughts are ridiculous.  But, yeah, I get it.  And if it is vanity, well, I'm just glad I'm not the only one who has felt such a thing. 

To be sure, Lewis doesn't think it's vanity alone that drives us to hold on to our sadness:   

I think there is also a confusion.  We don't really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged:  nobody could.  But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we confuse the symptom with the thing itself.

I think this is precisely what I was experiencing when I wrote before about wanting to slide back into the depths of grief just when I feel myself surfacing.  I can't quite shake this idea that I can only feel close to Eliza if if I am a sobbing wreck of a person.  The truth is that what I want is my baby, I want her back, it's all I want.  Given that, I can see how easy it is to confuse my love for her with my grief for her, so that now, in my effort to feel close to my baby, I cling tightly to sadness instead.

Lewis suggests, instead, a counterintuitive truth:

For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them.  this becomes clearer and clearer.  It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow...that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness.  Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right.  This is good and tonic.

I consider this possibility and wonder if--and how--it can work for a baby who never really lived, who never really had a "full reality," whose otherness exists mostly in my imagination.  How can I remember her in her own right, when she never took a breath?

A dear friend of mine wrote to me recently of some of her happy memories of my pregnancy.  Everything from cute maternity outfits that I wore to conversations we had about birth plans and breastfeeding.  Most of the time, I avoid thinking about those happy moments in my pregnancy.  They seem stupid, naive, idiotic.  But maybe my friend is right--maybe someday I will be able to think about my pregnancy with a gentle nostalgia instead of a savage pain.  Maybe that time won't just be the ignorant calm before the storm but will be gentle moments I spent with Eliza, when we both were truly happy.  Maybe those moments will be the ones that bring Eliza back to mind the way she should be remembered--with a smile (even if it's a rueful one, even if it's often complicated by tears).

This seems like a great idea.  Like Lewis, I want to feel close to her apart from sadness.  Let me get right on that:

I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness.  I will even salute her with a laugh.  The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.

A brilliant plan, right?  But Lewis is human enough to admit how fucking impossible that is (although he, for one, is very polite and British in his admission):

An admirable programme.  Unfortunately it can't be carried out.  Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the made words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears.  For in grief nothing 'stays put.'  One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs.  Round and round.  Everything repeats.  Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

This is what people call "the ebb and flow" of grief.  Are we circling back or moving up?  Who can tell?  When will it end?  Lewis wonders too, about the lasting freshness of this pain:

How often -- will it be for always?--how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"?  The same leg is cut off time after time.  The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.

For those of us who have lost a child, this sensation is all too familiar.  Does every day get slightly better?  Maybe.  Sort of.  But then how to account for that night last week when the memories of the hospital came back to me with a horrible vividness?  What about that moment upon waking this morning when my stomach was so filled with dread I could hardly take a deep breath?  What about the despair that hit me driving home from work yesterday, when I suddenly realized that my obituary will read "Preceded in death by one daughter, Eliza"?

(The downside of a vivid imagination is that it will always find a new and creative way to torture you.)

How do you recover from a grief that blindsides you, trips you up, and settles on you like a heavy blanket when you're already down?

* * *

Despite our best efforts to cling to the one we love, despite our vanity and confusion, despite the great and undeniable pain that comes from such a loss, even the most acute grief begins to subside eventually.  But that is not to say that grief can be tidily wrapped up and put away finished.  In the last chapter, Lewis admits that there is no "final chapter" to grief, that there is no "ending" to his book and so he must choose an arbitrary stopping place:

The other end I had in view turns out to be not a state but a process.  It needs not a map but a history. ...  My jottings show something of the process, but not so much as I'd hoped.  Perhaps ... changes were not really observable.  There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition.  Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight.  When you first notice them they have already been going on for some time.

Someone else I know compared grief to the change of seasons--a particularly apt metaphor for those of us in the Midwest who lived under inches of snow and ice for months, had a reprieve with temperatures in the 60s and 70s over this last week, and now are looking at gray days in the 40s.  Spring doesn't happen all at once.  It's gradual and it moves backwards and forwards. It comes unbidden, existing before you even realize it.  And sometimes, unfortunately, just when the days have been filled with enough sunshine to convince the trees and flowers to bloom, you get a late frost that kills everything.  And you think maybe that should be the end of it.

But it's not.  The world goes on and gets warm again. Because even when it seems like all hope is lost, and should be lost, spring is relentless.  Resilient.

The question is how to honor our grief without prolonging it, how to convince ourselves that moving forward does not mean leaving behind the ones we've lost.

If I can just find an answer to that question, maybe someday I will be able to find Eliza also in my laughter instead of only in my tears.


  1. Beautifully put! I can relate on sooo many levels. I may have to get myself a copy of that book. Thanks for sharing!

  2. i felt my eyes welling up with tears while reading this. you spoke to my heart on so many things you said. i will be checking out that book too. yes, all we want in this world is to have our babies back, and religion is of NO consolation at all.

  3. I think going forward I am going read your blogs and then promptly copy & paste them onto mine (kidding).

    You are writing exactly everything I am thinking and feeling, only much more eloquently than I ever could.

    I feel like an amputee as well, only the pieces of us that are removed are not visible.

    I too want to swim and wallow in my grief to keep Love closer to me. Tears are my new BFF. Fun.

    If you ever find a way to honour Eliza in your laughter, I am counting on you to share it.

    (I posted a comment earlier but my computer died, so it doesn't look like it worked. If I have posted twice, my apologies.)

  4. Thank you so much for posting this, I definitely need to check out this book! I went through such a conflict of faith following Lily's death, feeling so betrayed at times by what had happened. It's comforting to know that even CS Lewis felt some of the same things I have felt.

  5. What powerful observations made by Mr. Lewis. I too will have to look into that book. For a while I tried to compare my grief to that of others. There have been times when I felt I did not grieve enough and others where I felt I grieve too much. It was just another thing I had to learn to let go of and deal with the best way I knew how. Regardless of what stage of grief people are in, it is comforting to know that you have been there or will get there eventually. Much love ~

  6. This was extremely thought-provoking. I haven't read Lewis, although I think my husband has read just about every one of his books. But I did see "Shadowland," about Lewis & his wife Joy, with Anthony Hopkins & Debra Winger. Have Kleenex handy.

  7. I read this book shortly after my son died and found it so powerful. Amputation analogy? Check. Grief feels like fear? Check. I was so relieved to read that someone else felt like I did and admitted to it, even though our losses were different.

    I so wanted to hold on to my tears after Ben died, because, as someone pointed out to me, they connected me to him in a way nothing else could. That's no longer (entirely) true, but every time I cry, in some way it is about him.