I recently finished reading A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It’s a series of journal entries that he wrote after his beloved wife died from cancer, chronicling his unedited journey of healing as he poured out his heart to God. Reading about someone else process through all of these complex emotions is helpful because it reminds you that you’re not alone on this long and unpredictable road.
It was cathartic for my soul to read Lewis’s raw emotions. My heart is constantly filled with a mess of feelings as I grieve, and I don’t always know how to express them using spoken language. Sometimes words come. But often it’s tears. Or inward groans. Lewis pinpointed my ambiguous emotions and translated them into something written.
I never thought I could relate on such a deep level with a British guy who smoked cigars for leisure and dialogued about philosophy and theology just for the fun of it. (Bleh.) But it turns out that grief connects you to the most unlikely people.
How Much Do I Trust God?
“You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound so long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”
Before Evelyn’s death, I knew my faith in Christ was real, but when I had to give her back to Jesus so soon, it caused me to come face to face the veracity and genuineness of my faith.
Does God really love me? Because right now life hurts badly.
Is God still good? Because this is really, really painful.
Do I believe that death is not the end, but that heaven is a real place where God’s fullness dwells and Christ is seated at his right hand? Because heaven can feel so far away at times.
Do I trust Jesus enough to take care of my daughter? Because I would much rather have her here.
Do I believe that the Lord brings beauty from ashes? Because that seems too difficult.
Do I trust that God can give me the comfort and grace to keep living joyfully until he calls me home too? Because some days are just hard.
I declare a resounding “yes” to all of this. But it’s not an easy “yes”. Because trusting implies that we won’t have all of the answers, and yet we choose to stake our life on it anyway. In this case, stake my life on Jesus.
It reminds me of a passage in the gospel of John.
After Jesus was teaching, many of his disciples turned away because his teaching was hard. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
That’s how it feels sometimes. Like, what’s the other alternative? Abandoning God with a heart full of confusion and resentment and anger? Just throwing in the towel because it got hard? Or continuing to trust that he loves me and that he has good, eternal purposes that I can’t perceive from my vantage point right now.
I’ll choose to trust him.
“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”
When Suffering Becomes Real, Not Theoretical
“I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.”
I’ve read books and seen countless stories on the news and internet about people who persevere through trials with unwavering faith and courage, having the resilience to let that trial produce good things instead of leaving them curled up in a corner forever (which can feel very tempting).
Those kind of people have always inspired me. I got warm fuzzy feelings when I read about them. I admired their fortitude and tenacity.
I wondered how I would respond in the face of adversity or suffering, whatever it may be someday.
Then it happened.
And it wasn’t so inspiring anymore. And it didn’t feel warm or fuzzy. And the process of saying “no” to despair and “yes” to redemption turns out to be messy and full of tears – not at all like the three minute news story with uplifting background music.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, that the death of a child is even worse than I could have imagined. The bottom line is – suffering is hard.
Thankfully, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”…For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-11).
Grief is Frustrating
“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had [my wife] for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through the habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down.”
For nine months I prepared my heart and our home for this sweet child, precious Evelyn Joy. I put the car seat in the car. I set up her bassinet in our room. I bought a book for Caleb about how to be a “big bruver”. We watched my belly grow and felt her wiggle and kick inside of me. We prayed and prayed for her, anticipating a lifetime full of memories and milestones.
But in God’s sovereign plan, he gave us only 20 days.
So all of this love and preparation that was stored up in my heart has nowhere to go now. It can’t be transferred to another child because every child is a special, irreplaceable gift. Each one occupies a space in their parents’ hearts with a unique vessel of love that flows specifically for them.
My love can’t simply disappear either. Love doesn’t work that way.
So what do I do with all of these feelings and desires and hopes and dreams that were meant for Evelyn? The object of that specific love is gone now.
Yes, there is the hope of heaven. Yes, I will see her again one day. But right now, it’s frustrating.
“‘It was too perfect to last’, so I am tempted to say of our marriage. But it can be meant in two ways. It may be grimly pessimistic – as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He stopped it (‘None of that here!’). As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation. But it could also mean ‘This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. Therefore of course it would not be prolonged.’ As if God said, ‘Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.’ When you have learned to do quadratics and enjoy doing them you will not be set them much longer. The teacher moves you on.”
Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Although I would have chosen a lifetime with Evelyn, God had ordained 20 days. It makes me sad because she’s not here. But it reminds me that her life was known and planned by God long ago. Her life reached its fulfillment, and now she lives in the perfect glory of heaven with Jesus himself.
It’s this time of separation and waiting that’s so, very hard.
Grief Changes You Permanently
“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. 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.”
It’s impossible to experience deep loss and come out unscathed. It changes you. Period.
By God’s grace, he can bring healing and redemption. But it makes you a different person. Holidays and dates are different. Relationships are different. Words and phrases carry a different meaning. Locations are different. Perspective is different.
Every. thing. is different. I will never be the same again.
The different doesn’t have to be despairing. I pray that God will use it to make something beautiful. But the different is absolutely unavoidable.
Did That Really Happen?
“And then it would come to seem unreal – something so foreign to the usual texture of my history that I could almost believe it had happened to someone else.”
It’s a terrible feeling when I look at pictures of my family of four, when I feel the scar along my abdomen, when I taste the salty tears running down my cheeks, and think “Did that really happen?” I don’t think it’s denial. Or maybe I’m in denial that it’s denial. But it is strange how an event that’s so life-changing and ever-present can, at times, feel like an illusion.
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All non-sense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.”
I have some big questions. But they can’t be answered this side of heaven. And they may never be answered. So I must choose to trust the heart of God. Maybe someday when I get to heaven, the questions won’t even matter anymore. I’ll have to wait and see…
“Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.”
I guess I haven’t experienced any monumental healing steps after reading this book. But it is nice to ingest someone else’s words and think to yourself, “Me too. I can relate to you on some level. I’m thankful that I’m not alone. Thank you for putting my feelings into words, Mr. Lewis.”
“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.”