Monday 10 September 2012

Talking of Grief

I hope I don't sound odd when I say that I am rather fascinated by the idea of grief.  Not in a sadistic way, of course, but simply because it is a fundamental aspect of human life which I have yet to experience.  Recently I have read two very different non-fiction books on the topic, and it seemed to make sense (briefly) to consider them together - Calvin Trillin's About Alice (2006) and C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed (1961).  Both are by husbands who are coming to terms with the premature loss of their wife to cancer, but from that point, they are incredibly different.

As the title suggests, Trillin's book is about Alice, his wife.  It is essentially a memoir of their marriage, concentrating on those qualities he most loved in Alice - and how bravely and determinedly she was when she first had cancer, which went into remission, and then returned.  What made About Alice moving to me was, actually, the fact that I didn't warm to Alice at all.  The characteristics Trillin adored - such as bluntness,  or a willingness to use her beauty to avoid speeding tickets - weren't ones which I admire, which made Trillin's portrait all the stronger and affecting.  Reminiscences - in fact or fiction - which detail how uniformly perfect the deceased was, and how terribly they are mourned by everyone, never quite ring true.  We all know that our very favourite people are not everyone's favourite people, and a personal grief is much more powerful for being personal.

I'm struggling to know what to write about About Alice.  It's a beautiful portrait of a relationship, as well as a woman.  It is not really a book about grief - that isn't the sort of book Trillin chose to write.   I found it moving, but as the reflection of a life that has sadly ended, rather than reflections upon Trillin's own ongoing life.

Lewis's A Grief Observed is the flip-side of the coin.  There is little about Joy's character and life, because Lewis's focus is the process(es) of grief - particularly, grief as a Christian.  A Grief Observed isn't a work of theology, though, because that would suggest settled conclusions, with arguments and illustrations to support and work towards them.  Lewis writes that sort of book very well (c.f. Mere Christianity), but in A Grief Observed he is openly flailing.  It really is the documentation of an ongoing process.  Lewis hasn't edited the book to make it feel consistent or conclusive - indeed, he often backtracks or offers alternative interpretations of what he has already written.
I wrote that last night.  It was a yell rather than a thought.  Let me try it over again.
Somehow, Lewis manages to write down the varying states of his mind and spirit without sounding self-absorbed or introspective.  Grief genuinely seems to confound and puzzle him, as he tries to ascertain how he really feels, and how he will manage the future.  Part of this is concerned with his faith, and re-assessing his understanding of God.  In soaps or light fiction, grief would have ended his faith - Lewis's relationship with God was too strong and real for that, but the pain of losing his wife does make him reconsider God's character, and how he has previously misunderstood it.  Again, Lewis doesn't have any predetermined conclusions here, and he doesn't really come to any by the end of the book, but he is remarkably eloquent about his journey here.  (Sorry, I meant to avoid the word 'journey', but... well, it felt like one.)

A Grief Observed is starkly, vividly, astonishingly honest.   It is also eloquent and thoughtful, without losing spontaneity or genuine emotion.  Through the nature of Lewis's approach, it is of wider applicability that Trillin's book.  Although nobody else will have the exact experience Lewis did, plenty of people will probably agree with the general points he discovers along the way.
I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.  Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.  It needs not a map but a history, and if I don't stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there's no reason why I should ever stop.  There is something new to be chronicled every day.  Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
I read A Grief Observed with the interest of the outsider, keen to understand a facet of emotion I cannot grasp.  One day, presumably, I will need to turn to it as a fellow-griever.  I found Lewis's book so powerful and wise even without having experienced grief - and now, thankfully, I will know exactly where to turn when I first experience it.  And I imagine it will feel like a completely different book then.


  1. You are right, Blogger does mess up your comments! I wrote a long comment and it wouldn't post. :\

    Anyhow, as you are interested in this topic, I would recommend "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion. She writes about the first year after her husband's sudden (though not entirely premature) death. I found it eerily accurate about certain aspects of grief, so much so that I had to put it down halfway through and didn't finish reading it until more than 6 months later.

    Another book which has been recommended to me, but which I have yet to actually read is "On Death and Dying" by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. It is more clinical, and has to do with a sick/dying person coming to terms with the reality of their own death, but the basic concepts of grief still apply.

    Hopefully in the future I'll have a comment to make on a less morbid topic. Happy reading!
    -Courtney (

    1. Sorry about Blogger issues! It can be a pain.
      Thank you for the recommendation of those books. And, yes, usually things are less sombre around here - I look forward to your comments on more frivolous posts!

  2. I was just going to mention the Didion book, but I see Courtney has beat me to it. Katherine Ashenburg's The Mourner's Dance is also very good - weaving in personal experience of loss with looking at mourning rituals in different times & places.

    Your ending comment, "I found Lewis's book so powerful and wise even without having experienced grief - and now, thankfully, I will know exactly where to turn when I first experience it. And I imagine it will feel like a completely different book then." is very wise, and spot on.

  3. Joan Didion's book is a must read. Beautifully written and extremely moving. You may also be interested in "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon Vanauken. Here's the Amazon description:

    A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, is a heart-rending love story described by its author as "the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers." Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share. As a symbol of their love, they name their dream schooner the Grey Goose, "for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another."

    While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accept the Christian doctrine. As their devotion to God intensifies, Sheldon realizes that he is no longer Davy's primary love--God is. Within this discovery begins a brewing jealousy.

    Shortly after, Davy acquires a fatal illness. After her death Sheldon embarks on an intense experience of grief, "to find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it ... to learn from sorrow whatever it had to teach." Through painstaking reveries, he comes to discover the meaning of "a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love." He learns that her death "had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault. ...And it saved our love from perishing."

    Replete with 18 letters from C.S. Lewis, A Severe Mercy addresses some of the universal questions that surround faith--the existence of God and the reasons behind tragedy. --Jacque Holthusen

    1. That does sound incredibly powerful and thought-provoking, thank you AEH.

  4. Please read Jerome Groopman's book review in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. The ending is poetic and gives us a hint of what dying must be.

    I envy you, I guess, that you have never experienced grief. Too many of my family and friends have died prematurely, some suddenly, some after long battles. Grief surrounds me daily, and always will.

    1. I realise that I am lucky to have got to this age without experiencing grief - sorry to hear how much has entered your life.

  5. I don't think anyone can write about grief unless they have been there and lived through it. Not everyone survives it. Many lose their faith through it and I think it is so personal, I dont know if many would be turning to any book at all when first hit with it. Grief is so big, so profound, it doesn't really go into any package that can be fixed by sitting in a comfortable spot with a great book about it. You no doubt will know it one day but I hope you are very old by then. All the best, Pam

    1. I didn't mean to imply the book would fix it, sorry Pam.

    2. Pam, you are right that it’s all so personal. Everyone is different. I experienced grief in the past and reading was comforting and helped me. And I don’t remember it as sitting in some comfortable spot with a great book about grief that fix everything. It was more like crying my eyes out while reading, then crying myself to sleep with a book under the pillow, then reading it the first thing in the morning and crying, but I believe the things I was reading helped me to get through this terrible time and that particular book became my best friend (in a way). I can’t explain that feeling, but I know that I would turn to it again in a time of grief. But then, maybe it’s just me. And, Simon, you are right that the same book is going to feel completely different when read while grieving... it turns into a very special book. But again, maybe it’s just me..... All the best to both of you.

  6. Anything written by Calvin Trillin is wonderful, grief or otherwise. I'm afraid I don't have the same appreciation of Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. Perhaps one needs to read several other Trillin books to more completely understand his sense of humor, thus appreciating his relationship with Alice. It is true that everyone doesn't experience grief in the same manner, and some get on with their life quicker than others after a loss.


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