A Grief Re-Observed: C.S. Lewis and the Afterlife
Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape…Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one you are presented with, exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But it isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat. -C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
C.S. Lewis knows how to do grief: how to write it, how to think about it, and finally, how to live through it and then finally dwell in it. A Grief Observed is helping me navigate the daily reality of living with Ronan’s terminal diagnosis. Originally published under a different name, this sleek little missile of a book is the chronicle of the minutes and seconds and hours and weeks and months of grief after the death of Lewis’s beloved wife, a woman he fell in love with late in his life and much to his brooding but delighted surprise. He married her while she was ill, fully aware that their time together was limited. The book is angry, profound, wrenching, and above all, full of questions that Lewis attempts to answer using both faith and intelligence together, a pairing that in our current political climate feels like a giant surprise, a colorful weasel popping out of an ordinary cardboard box. What’s a devout Christian guy (indeed, an apologist) to do with a big fat heap of despair when the God he believes in has arranged for a fabulous, post-resurrection afterlife that doesn’t accommodate despair and actually might equate it with sin? He digs and digs with the sharp instrument of his mind. He’s a virtual cutter, and he will not let the difficult topics lie. He goes right for them.
Grief is a sickness, Lewis reasons, and a deadly one without a cure — “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms” – and he searches his formidable, very wise and devout brain for answers or cures that might include the notion of a good (or bad) God, the time/space continuum, and logic. He comes up short in every respect. He is dizzy, whirling, lost and sad, but he does not give up. He thinks and thinks and thinks. Each day he goes back, each day he wrangles: why, where, how, when, what? Do people (their bodies, their minds, their sum totals, whatever we might mean by that) become “sheer intellects” in our minds and memories, able to peer through our enchantments and reveal our self-delusions? Do dead spirits become ghosts housed in memory or are they actually physical ghosts, and if so, are they chain-rattling and pesky, floating about in the dead of night, or are they calm and contented fairies twittering about? If one begs God for mercy, does that mean that God is capable of withholding it, and what does that say about the quality or effectiveness of God’s mercy in the first place? Lewis lets it all fall into his head and then out again. He is a shackled journalist seeking to write a factual article without the opportunity to gather any evidence or empirical proof or even move off the floor of some smelly old prison in some far away place. All he can do is scratch on the walls and wonder and writhe around on the bare floor. The only place to search, the only landscape he can visit, is his heart. Turns out that’s a pretty big and interesting place. In our current national climate, in this country that prides itself on the division of church and state (?), where religious beliefs are tossed around like candy from parade floats to potential voters in silly debates that claim to be about “moral issues” but are really about nothing at all, where people are asked to apologize for who and what they are, a humiliating and deeply un-Christian demand, encountering the theological brain of C.S. Lewis is like quenching a giant thirst you didn’t know you had until you gulped down a liter of water in one go and felt instantly hydrated.
Because A Grief Observed avoids platitudes and easy answers, but not the metaphysical, not the intellectual or spiritual aspects of pain, it is actually one of the few books that has helped me navigate this new and often lightless terrain of grief. I like to think of it as “The A.G.O.” This gives it the wise and epic heft I believe it deserves. The book engages the questions of what happens to us after we die (does it hurt, and if it did, what would that mean?) from inside the white-hot energy of the actual experience. The book is an existential, stricken, super brainy howl into the void. Thank you, Clive Staples aka “Jack” Lewis. If you were alive, I bet you’re one of the only people who would fully understand how truly grateful I am for what you’ve written. I wish you could know how eagerly I pick up your book when I’m about to lose my mind and find yours there, waiting, like a comfortable rock to sit on at the top of a long trek straight up the side of a mountain. I like the view from your brain.
I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is essentially a dramatization of one possible version of the afterlife, although this alternative, imagined, “secondary” world is not full of swooping, attractive angels and a white-bearded, lightly muscled God bestowing grace on saved souls, not a place of easy, painless resurrections and bells ringing out from flower-covered hilltops, but a tremendous and often terrifying place where moral decisions have consequences, where people and animals sacrifice and die and then live again, but not without being altered or changed. Death and life exist side by side. You might become a king or a queen but not without a price. Unlike common (read: medieval) depictions of the afterlife, the one on the other side of Lewis’s wardrobe is fantastical but doesn’t abandon all logic and sense. Lewis, a devout Christian of the pre-Bachmann-Perry-Palin kind, makes a good argument for the role and power of Christian moral thought in the great task we all have of making our way through life without becoming hateful and horrible. In short, C.S. Lewis is a Christian, but he is not an idiot, a zealot, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a racist, or a xenophobe. This measured temperance of thought (although his intelligence is blade-sharp) singles him out among those who claim the Christian mantle and hang all kinds of ridiculousness (bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, homophobia) beneath it.
Why is his method of thought so interesting, so new? In the middle of his grief experience, Lewis acknowledges the limits of empathy. We are constantly told (and sometimes taught, if this is possible) to be empathetic, to develop empathy, to use it when thinking about or talking about another person’s shitty situation. It’s like a marketable skill, something to deploy, detonate, use. We are asked to extend our empathy (or, more accurately, our sympathy, which is more of a distancing maneuver), almost every day. Tsunamis. Terrorist attacks. Bombs. Famines. Hurricanes. Child abuse. Rape. War war war. We get facts and are asked to imagine and we say isn’t that terrible and we believe that we empathize. I feel you, we say, and the world is wicked and I’m so sorry. Nice theory, Lewis concludes; too bad the whole notion of empathy is completely bunk. “You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain.” You can’t really test the strength of a rope until you’re asked to hang from it over a cliff. There have to be stakes. After his wife dies, Lewis understands that nobody – ever — can feel another person’s agony. Not even God. It is this last bit that makes him truly weary, as prayer (his old standby) has become useless to him. If God has limits, then what?
Without prayer to sustain him, Lewis is stranded in (not by) grief, and what’s worse, it’s a landscape of his own making. It’s a place, sure, but nobody can come and visit; nobody has the password, nobody can really, truly walk through that wardrobe door and see what you’re doing on the other side of it, or what you’ve been imagining or experiencing. Grief as a place is textured and variable in terms of weather, chance inhabitants, and geographical location. It might be lunar, alpine, sub-tropical. It might have birds or beetles or very large and hungry bears roaming about, hunting. It might be a house, an apartment, a mansion, a shack. Each day requires a re-orientation, a brutal schooling in the vicissitudes of grief:
Man dwells when he can orientate himself within and identify himself with an environment, or, in short, when he experiences the environment as meaningful. Dwelling therefore implies something more than “shelter.” It implies that the spaces where life occurs are places, in the true sense of the word. A place is a space which has a distinct character. Since ancient times the genius loci, or “spirit of place,” has been recognized as the concrete reality man has to face and come to terms with in his daily life.-Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture
Exactly. You inhabit grief and grief inhabits you, which means you have to learn how to dwell within it. The problem with this is that each time you open a door or look behind a pretty-looking tree there’s something terrible flowering behind it. Like that world beyond the wardrobe door, which includes both the place you’re going as well as the place you left behind, there is a cost for opening, for dwelling, and Lewis pays it in kind, noting that Prometheus always had a new, freshly-grown liver for that mean bird to chew on. Grief: relentless and self-generating. You think you’ve hit a nice flat road and it might be time to exercise cruise control and then bam! It’s forty below zero and your windshields are iced over and your wipers are doing fuck all to help you.
A few days ago, Ronan stood up. With assistance of course, the physical therapist wrapping her arms around his trunk and straightening his legs, holding the back of his neck, chanting a tune I can sing but have no idea what it means or where it’s from. His fine blond hair seemed to fizz around his head; a few curls traced the edges of his ears. He cooed and smiled. He was tall and gorgeous and his feet were flat on the floor. He’s big – no longer a baby but a little boy, but also a dying boy, a helpless boy, and as I watched his face bloom I realized that there’s some part of him that wants to walk and never will. He wants something he can’t have, which is a kind of suffering. Sitting on the floor before him, I had the urge to reach out my arms as if he might walk into them. For a moment I actually imagined that he could do this; that he would run to me, that he would live. Who is to say that I didn’t drop into some version of the afterlife, some alternative, other-side-of-the-wardrobe universe where Ronan grows up, runs track, gets acne, locks himself in a man cave at thirteen and only speaks to me in grunts? After that flash of forgetfulness I felt as though I had stepped into a pit. I held my breath and dropped. I fell and fell and fell. This crossed my mind – it does feel like a curse. To have had and to love and to hold this beautiful boy who cannot live; to see his body grow and change and know that the growth is killing him, killing part of me. Screw what the wardrobe might hold. I just want to sit in one and never come out. I want to scribble bad art on the wooden walls and screech at anyone who tries to offer comfort.
This feeling of being cursed didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from people (I think) trying to be empathetic. “You must be cursed!” a woman said to me last week in Santa Fe. Another Good Samaritan announced in the coffee shop line that God had chosen me for my little bit of suffering. I half-expected someone to come running out and crying, “She’s a witch! Burn her!” I didn’t feel so much cursed as trapped, which might be the same thing. People come at me with ready-made boxes, ready to set me inside them; they hold out cages, inviting me to crawl in. They show up with brooms, ready to sweep my life with Ronan – mine and Rick’s – under the rug of tragedy, lost causes, poor, pathetic people. But here’s what Lewis taught me: these well-wishers, if indeed they are that, aren’t allowed in my world of grief. They cannot penetrate, know or understand its brutal truth, its mix of light and dark, its weird and terrifying beauty, the sheer presence of a completely encompassing, mind-shattering, rib-cracking love. They are not welcome. This world – this love – is mine, all mine. No tickets will be sold to this show. Access denied. Their empathy has no currency here.
Reading C.S. Lewis empowered me against these curse-makers, these myth-mongers, these impolite people. My story will not be tidied, and my grief will not be boxed, and I am not inviting them to any picnics I might have in Grief Land, and believe me, there are glittering, beautiful, delicious gourmet picnics. After the cursing incident, I came up with a new line. When people ask me what’s wrong with Ronan, I say, “He’s dying, and, by the way, so are you!” I can pop this off in the chirpiest, friendliest tone and then limp off down the vitamin aisle. Why? Because it’s true. “You’re getting snarky,” people warn. Maybe. Or maybe people are just acting stupidly, maybe they just need to wake up. If mortality is a curse (which, if living forever is the goal, it is indeed), then we are all cursed. Me no more so than you.
As Lewis navigates his only feelings of being cursed (his beloved gone at 45), he realizes that grief is a mobile landscape and it’s not wholly bad or to be avoided. Yes, you never know when it might show up at your door and start planting some rotting trees or tasteless garden gnomes. You also don’t know when you’ll notice a perfect, blooming rose, or experience a moment of utter, uncomplicated happiness that no drug could provide. But when I am being cursed by (supposedly) well-meaning strangers, I do feel deeply afraid. I feel the yawn of some terrible loss that is to come, that is already coming, that has already arrived, a gravitational tug. I stand in front of the cheap wine at Trader Joe’s and cry like an animal and I hate those people as much as I fear them. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” Yes, I thought, yes. Being in the world while grieving, while holding the “doomed” child in front of you, means that you often move through the world tired, or uncaring, and like you are slightly drunk. Prayer may fail Lewis — “But when you go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside” – but thinking and imagining do not. He gets up and gets right back into his landscape of grief. He starts planting, weeding, tearing up, building, burning everything to the ground and starting over.
And in the middle of all this spiritual and intellectual activity, Lewis gets technical; he searches, flounders. What happens to the physical body, he muses, and/or to the soul, to the person, this “cloud of atoms” after death? “That is, in what place is she at the present time?” Part of what infuriates Lewis about the “she’s in heaven” angle is that it presumes that his beloved wife is either static, and therefore might as well be dead; or alive, and then how does that work? Does she age in the way we understand it in our own universe and in our own bodies? Or is there reverse aging? Do we morph into various creatures at various angelic whims? “Jung said that there is no coming to life without pain, and that may well be true of what happens to us after death. The important thing is that we do not know. It is not in the realm of proof. It is in the realm of love.” Is there some death initiation? Some physical or moral hoops? How can we ask a God to be both mysterious and all-powerful and also understandable? “All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round?” Lewis is an algebra teacher trying to explain the actual physical size of an imagined number – is it the size of a basket, a kitten, an ocean, the microscopic head of a pin?
Kind people have said to me, ‘She is with God.’ In one sense that is most certain. She is, like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable…Unless, of course, you believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore, pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back.
No alternative realities, then. No Ronan growing up in some other dimension, on some other planet or in some other place. But then why the dreams of him walking into my room, asking for a story, a glass of water, a hug? Why these images of him at six, ten, sixty, thirty-two? Why are the images so vivid? Has part of him already crossed over and these dreams are giving me a taste of a secondary universe not unlike the one Lewis creates behind the wardrobe door? And how can I square a non-belief in God’s existence with this desire to blame God for not being good, for allowing evil, and for demanding that some part of my son goes on after his physical death? Lewis: “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite. What have we to set against it?” Exactly. But then who or what creates the afterlife, the secondary world, the other place? He revises this logic in the next chapter, describing it as “a yell” instead of a thought, and in the end he decides that the depiction of God as Sadist is too anthropomorphic to be an adequate description of God’s alleged powers, even more inaccurate and offensive than an old, bushy-bearded man looking out for humankind’s best interests.
Of course, like Lewis, I will never not be without Ronan, from the moment after his last moment and until the final moment of my own life. His absence, like Lewis’s wife was for him, will be “like the sky, spread over everything.” The whole rest of life is going to be a great big without. Life will always be amiss in some way. There are a lot of mountains in the land of grief, a lot of gut-busting treks, a lot of work to do: tunnels and high rises to dig and build; tourist attractions to promote. And that needs to be done on a daily basis, mind you, because the beloved dies again and again. Rebuilding is always required. It’s easy to get lost in the work of creating a whole new country of grief, and Lewis worries about the days after the “mad midnight moments.” I, too, dread the moment after the final moment, that “landfall” as Lewis would describe it (different from an “arrival,” which implies safety), that I wish I had never become a parent, I wish the journey with Ronan would end now, this minute, I wish it would never end and that time would stop – I wish all of this in the same moment, and then I wish I didn’t wish it, and then I wish I could stop wishing or thinking. No wonder grieving people are so exhausted all the time; no wonder we retreat to trash television and episodes of Law and Order or hypomanic episodes or liters of vodka. Especially in this culture where we’re taught that all of our value rests, somehow, in the future and what we do or accomplish there, then what do we do when what’s coming for us is death?
So if we don’t really care – can’t really care – about the sorrows of the world until they are our own, meaning that our faith and sympathy are revealed for what they truly are – acts of imagination – then what? Imagination is okay, Lewis decides, it is all we have, it is enough. When the grief lifts, he remembers his wife best; when he is not thrashing and screaming, he can feel her, he can rest, he’s at peace. The intensity of our longing to understand, he believes, is what makes that understanding so uniquely impossible.
Almost every month I drive Ronan to the valley of Chimayo, to the Chapel of Santo Nino de Tocha, the baby saint who runs around doing miracles during the night, which is why the back room of his colorful chapel filled with birds and monkeys and trees is full of tiny shoes. He wears himself out doing all those good deeds. I’m worn out, too, tired of traveling up and down the spiral of grief, in and out of the valley of grief, to Chimayo and back, through the dusty rooms, sweltering in summer and icy in winter, feeding Ronan in the brick of white light that falls through the sunroof in the the back chapel, scanning the different shoes, noticing new ones, new photographs, different rosaries draped over the statue of the walking baby saint with his tipped hat and blond hair and placid face. It is here when I understand best that love is loss, and that loss is not made of a series of curses thrown our way. Each part of our survival is dependent on a mass of small coincidences, the thinnest web that spreads out behind us and beneath us; rather than catch us, it pushes us our delicate bodies forward into the easily wrecked realities we inhabit. A whole wall of photos of teenage boys who have been killed in Iraq. Crutches covered in dust and hanging from the wall. One boy’s college I.D. card. Prayers written on casts that have been cut away from the body. A lot of prayers from mothers.
If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see his grandchild.
I don’t believe in the Christian God, but in Chimayo’s sanctuario I always duck into the room with the healing dirt. I grab a handful of it and sprinkle it through my son’s hair; sometimes I eat a little bit of it or toss some down my shirt. I buy the statue of a saint or a candle or a shrine box or a triptych or a Milagros from Nicholas at the Vigil Store. “This is for someone looking for love,” I hear him explaining. He holds up a sterling silver leg meant to be worn close to the body, meant to induce some miracle, some healing. “This one helps with wounded limbs.” Tiny images of the body meant to heal the biggest wounds.
My experience in Chimayo never repeats, and it’s the place where I go to visit the latest shape of my grief, and I always find something to add to a shelf, to a wall. And I leave things as well, little pieces of my gradual loss: a pair of Ronan’s outgrown shoes, a votive candle, my own slobbering tears. The hills always cast a new light; the tamales are always delicious. A lot of grieving and hurt people come to Chimayo to unload pieces of their grief, or hope; they come to stitch together personal landscapes of loss, so in fact the town and the dirt and the churches and chapels and spaces are all a part of the story of loving, the story of living.
And although I don’t believe in the afterlife, I can imagine myself in some far away place, some made-up reality, where the boy my boy might have been does something as simple as walk across the floor and into my arms. My own vision of heaven. I see this sequence all the time, repeated, replayed, it sits on me, a great weight, but it is never quite the same. I take the same path to Chimayo each time I visit, but the sequence never repeats. The shadows change and shift. Everything is different, everything is the same, the sequence rolls out identically but it is always new.
When I arrived in Spain this summer, I stepped off the plane in Almeria and thought this looks just like Albuquerque. A taxi drove me to an empty farmhouse at the end of a red dirt road. Everyone had gone to Granada for the weekend. I was alone, and on the table before me was a four-course dinner and a newly-pressed bottle of wine. Flies hovered over the food. An unseen dog barked on and on. I’ve never been so lonely, so adrift and yet so excited, so charged, in all my life. Goats bleating wearily from hillsides; wind running through all the empty rooms; ancient olive presses with levers like giant arms; a cross meant to replicate the feeling of Gethsemane looming in the moonlight on a hill. For some reason I think of that first night alone in Spain as I prepare Ronan for bed each night, rubbing de-stressing ointment on his fat wrists and just under his nose; carefully strapping him into the plastic booties covered with a blue and green fish pattern that keep his feet flat at night to reduce muscle spasms; kissing his face and stretching his sweet limbs and sometimes getting a toothy grin for my efforts. A lonely time, empty, but also full of something else. Potential? No. Stillness? Sure, although it’s more than that. It’s map-making time. The time at the end of the day when the brain rearranges what has happened in order to remember it when the beloved has gone. And it is love and it is sorrow and it is heaven and it is hell.
Lewis says, at the end of the A.G.O.” “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 a history, it needs breathing room, it wants to dwell. He also believes that if heaven is real, “the notions will all be knocked from under or feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.” Maybe. I hope so. I want to believe as much as I know that I never will.
I do know that some morning, years from now, I will have this identical dream, a dream that always repeats (and always in the morning) but feels slightly different each time: Ronan walking into the bedroom in the morning, two years old and then four, asking for a glass of water, or a snuggle, or saying “mama.” And that grief – and that happiness, too – will be just there, just within my half-asleep grasp, trembling on some paralytic edge between imagination and truth. Wherever I am when I dream this dream, I will be in the same country I thought I’d left behind years ago. I’ll be on that bending, twisting road to Chimayo with my talismans and votive offering of baby shoes and tiny shrines and trinkets and magical objects, wishing without believing in the consequences of that wish, and I will think I’ll have left it behind, this part of my life, this death, this loss, but I know that the country I’m living in now will be right there, so close that my lightest breath could ripple the grass, crack the sky, split the heart of this imagined but very real and painful and often beautiful world.