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.