A Grief Denied… by Most

in ACBAS, Front Page

In 1961, the Christian writer and literary scholar C.S. Lewis published A Grief Observed, a remarkably unsentimental and unadorned examination of his experience of grief following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. I read it last summer after my own wife died. Reading it was like looking in a mirror, a broken mirror at that, but still a mirror, reflecting almost every tortured thought and feeling, however inarticulate, I was experiencing at the time. Even in that moment of utter confusion, anger, and numbness, the book did not strike but rather stabbed a nerve. One aspect of the book that resonated the most was Lewis’s sense of bafflement at the silence of God—his indignation at being abandoned by the God that had become such an indispensable source of consolation, wisdom, and intellectual delight for him. I experienced that in spades. Was this in fact a cruel God who not only permitted suffering during life but could perpetuate it in death? Was this a God utterly indifferent to suffering, or whimsically aloof at the very moment of greatest need? Was this a God who spoke mellifluously of mercy and compassion but was in fact engaged in an elaborate metaphysical card game rigged to ensure that the house always won?

These and other equally confused half-thoughts about some of the biggest question we can confront as human beings seemed to plague me early and often, even while I made arrangements for the funeral. I can barely recall any of those events—a welter of sleepless nights, sleepwalking days, and numbness punctuated by moments of utter desolation. Yet in the process of making those arrangements I got to know the minister who would preside over the service and visitation. I visited him, looking for insight, for guidance, for something to hold on to. I asked him: where is Christ in all of this? Because I can’t seem to find him. Instead of platitudes about M. being in a better place, or everything having a meaning, or simply trusting blindly in the providence of God, the minister offered me the following: he will come to you in the kindness of others.

I’m not sure how comforting that was in the moment, but despite my skepticism, it has proven true over and over and over again. In a society that denies death—that systematically ignores it or is embarrassed by it and considers it annoyingly inconvenient and contrary to the purposes of efficiency, productivity, and general good taste—one is left to stumble alone through grief. That is, until Christ visits you. He does so through those who call you, write to you, ask about you, hug you, stop by and prays with you, and insist that they will not forget you…or her.

I sat down to write this piece in my office this afternoon, finally having arrived at a point when I could do so without going into an emotional tailspin. A man and his dog appeared at my door—it was a former student who I had not seen in 11 years. He said that he had seen me at the cemetery visiting M’s grave, alone in the cemetery, alone in my thoughts, and he resolved at that moment to visit me. That was three months ago. He visited today, at the very moment I was finally able to articulate something other that “I miss you.” We chatted about my dark night of the soul and of his own tragic loss. We spoke about our comparable experiences of grief, about the sense of disorienting loneliness, about the possibility of new life, about the need to remember, about the need for God. I really couldn’t belief it, except that it had happened now so many times by then, that, I had to. In this week before Easter, before we confront again the great mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, it’s worthwhile to remember Matthew 5:4. Those who mourn really will be blessed, not by a society that finds grief distasteful, but by a God who, having experienced abject abandonment, enters into solidarity with us in suffering, speaking to us in voices of compassion, tenderness, and decency.

Michael Dennis is a professor of history at Acadia University and a member of the ACBAS Administrative Committee.