Review: A Grief Observed

Helen Joy Davidman was an American poet who moved to England after divorcing her first husband, William Gresham. Once an atheist, Joy converted to Christianity and was soon married to the author and famous apologist, Clive Staples Lewis. Even as they were married in 1956, the couple knew of Joy’s diagnosed bone carcinoma. In 1960, Davidman died of her cancer, leaving Lewis to mourn her loss.

C.S. Lewis dealt with his wife’s death by writing out his troubled thoughts on paper. Four of his notebooks were compiled under the pseudonym, N.W. Clerk, and titled A Grief Observed, which was published the following year. Its paragraphs are brief and prone to wander reflectively through swells of emotion and walks of logic. Still, they dependably cycle back to Lewis’ own grief.

The author himself asks, “Am I going in circles?” The phases of grief seem to “always recur” and “everything repeats” (69). Such phases resemble the charted psychological stages of grief: the depression and denial, the anger and argumentation, and finally the acceptance. Lewis says there are times when, in denial, he “tries to assure [himself] that” he doesn’t “really mind so much,” and other times of anguish where he “cries out for [the happy past] with mad, midnight endearments (15, 38). Then, in times of “apathy” and “dead flatness,” he “loathe[s] the slightest effort” (47, 17). Yet with a cool logical head, he actively argues throughout the book, both to justify and condemn his behavior.

Eventually, in a kind of acceptance, Lewis says he has “stopped bothering about that” deliberating concern (63). He realizes, “the less [he] mourn[s]” his wife, “the nearer [he] seem[s] to her,” and he seems to have come full circle (69). Though all the phases have been exhausted, the grieving process has not yet dissolved itself. This is because, although “there are partial recurrences” throughout the process, “the sequence doesn’t repeat (72). Nor does it repeat across people.

Despite the attractive simplicity of the 5-step psychological model for grief, every individual person deals with it in his or her unique way for each unique day of struggles and joys. For this reason, Lewis titled his anonymous book with the indefinite article, A. One instance of grief is observed here, for Lewis is just one of many “ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved” (66). At the same time, his unique walk holds its own significance.


I aught to have said … of [Helen] and of every created thing I praise, I should say ‘In some way, in its unique way, like Him who made it.’ ” (75).