Bereavement and Hope

 

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“My beacon is gone and I’m drowning now. The storm is all around me and I can’t even save myself. I don’t even know if I want to.

She’s gone.” (David Levithan)

“Sea storms are up, God, Sea storms wild and roaring, Sea storms with thunderous breakers. Stronger than wild sea storms, Mightier than sea-storm breakers, Mighty God rules from High Heaven” ( Psalm 93:3-4)

Many  years ago, as a young minister in the north of England, I found myself in the position of taking funeral services for people that I didn’t know. What caught me by surprise was the sheer gut-wrenching pain I often felt for the families  who had been so recently bereaved. It was like taking a sledge-hammer to the ribs. On more than one occasion I was reduced to sobbing behind the pulpit.

In one sense, I wouldn’t want to lose that reaction. Who wants to be “professional” in the face of real naked hurt? On the other hand, the calm dignity -even the detachment- of a minister can actually be helpful in times of crisis like this. It’s like a steady hand at the tiller in the midst of a storm.

Those two reactions -measured calm and emotional turmoil- are roughly akin to the two books that C.S.Lewis wrote on human pain. The first –The Problem of Pain – came out in 1940. It was masterly and erudite, taking the reader step by step through the philosophical issues.

The second was very different. A Grief Observed is a collection of his reflections on the experience of bereavement following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman in 1960. It’s compiled from the four notebooks which he used to vent and explore his grief.

Lewis exhibits doubt and asks many fundamental questions of faith throughout the work. Because of his candid account of his grief and the doubts he voices, some of his admirers found it troubling. They were disinclined to believe that this Christian writer could be so close to despair. Some thought that it might be a work of fiction.

Others, such as Lewis’s critics, suggested that he was wisest when he was overcome with despair.

A Grief Observed explores the processes which the human brain and mind undergo over the course of grieving. The book questions the nature of grief, and whether or not returning to “normal” is even possible within the realm of our lives on earth.

The book is extremely candid, and it details the anger and bewilderment he had felt towards God after Joy’s death from cancer after only three years of marriage, as well as his impressions of life without her.

The period of his bereavement was marked by a process of moving in and out of various stages of grief and remembrance, and it becomes obvious that it heavily influenced his spirituality. In fact, Lewis ultimately comes to a revolutionary redefinition of his own characterisation of God: experiencing gratitude for having received and experienced the gift of a true love.

 

I guess in the simplest analysis, The Problem of Pain sought to provide theory behind the pain in the world and A Grief Observed is the practical outworking of that theory.  But, of course, it was more difficult to apply the theory he posited to a pain with which he was so intimately involved. At first it is hard for Lewis to see the reason of his theories amidst the anguish of his wife’s death but through the book one can see the gradual reacceptance of these theories, the reacceptance of the necessity of suffering.

“Is anything more certain than that 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?”

And Lewis’ ultimate resolution of his dilemma is in part articulated in the book, as follows: “I will not, if I can help it, shin up either the feathery or the prickly tree. Two widely different convictions press more and more on my mind. One is that the Eternal Vet is even more inexorable and the possible operations even more painful than our severest imaginings can forebode. But the other, that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

So gradually the two books come together, and over the years, my two reactions did too. Psalm 93 speaks of it in terms of an impossible, raging sea- storm: “Sea storms are up, God, Sea storms wild and roaring, Sea storms with thunderous breakers.”  There are things that happen that we simply cannot contain, cannot understand…

But the conviction of the Psalmist is the one to which Lewis arrived, that “ Stronger than wild sea storms, Mightier than sea-storm breakers, Mighty God rules from High Heaven.”

“We would not have you … grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13)

Lord, hear our prayer.

And let our cry come unto thee.

Amen

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