Reflections on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed

Writer and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)
Writer and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963)

Clive Staples Lewis is one of the giants of twentieth century Christian apologetics.  His reasoned and erudite defence of the Christian faith in books, essays, lectures and letters have persuaded and inspired many for decades. However it was the illness and death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman, that severely tested his faith, that forced an intensely personal introspection that blasted through layers of intellectual reasoning, and exposed a vulnerability and helplessness uncharacteristic in his writings. A Grief Observed is Lewis’ account of that grief, of his struggle to cope with the heart-wrenching agony that mere reason and intellectualism were so ill-equipped to explain.


The summary of Helen Joy Davidman’s life below, unless cited otherwise, is based on information from the website of the C.S. Lewis Institute [1].

Helen Joy Davidman was born in 1915 in the Bronx, New York. Raised in a middle class Jewish family she graduated high school at age fourteen, earned a B.A. from (the City University of New York’s) Hunter College and an M.A.  from Columbia University. She published several poems while still an undergraduate and, after joining the workforce as a teacher, was asked to serve as reader and editor of the prestigious magazine, Poetry, in Chicago, IL.  She resigned her teacher’s position and accepted the invitation.  In 1940 she published her first novel, Anya.

She became an atheist [2] and according to the C.S. Lewis Institute, became disillusioned with both the Democratic and Republican parties. She joined the Communist Party and worked part-time with New Masses, a Communist newspaper. There she served as a book reviewer, film critic and poetry editor. She also met the writer, William Gresham, author of the novel, Nightmare Alley. She married Gresham in 1942 and gave birth to her first child, David, in 1944, and to Douglas, in 1945.

The marriage soon began to unravel. Bill Gresham was an alcoholic and serial adulterer. Joy began searching for answers to address an unhappy life, to find fulfillment. But the situation only worsened when one night her husband phoned and told her he would not be coming home.

Later, she recalls her emotional state at this point: “[F]or the first time my pride was forced to admit that I was not, after all, “the master of my fate” . . . . All my defenses — all the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily – and God came in.” Embarking on a search for God she explored Reformed Judaism and read three books by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Screwtape Letters.  Lewis’ books led to reading the Bible. She finally found the answers to her quest in the Gospels and in Jesus Christ. She also summoned the courage to write to Lewis, and began to correspond with him through letters.

By1950 and working on a book-length study of the Ten Commandments, her health had deteriorated.  Her doctor ‘ordered rest–preferably away from the pressures of her chaotic house and family.’

Later that year she sailed for England, supposedly for rest, and to complete her book, Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments.  She left her sons in the care of her husband and a female first cousin.  In London she finished her book and contacted C.S. Lewis. Lewis and his brother, Warren, invited her to Oxford, where she shared her personal story. Just before returning to the United States, in January of 1951, her husband informed her that he had fallen in love with her cousin. She returned to New York. Nine months later her husband sued for divorced.  In December of that year she returned to England with her two sons.

In London Joy tried to support herself, writing and typing, with her husband’s child-support cheques, and from financial support from Lewis. By 1955 her financial situation had collapsed, and Lewis and his brother offered further financial support, a place to live near their home in Oxford, and work–writing and typing. By now it had become apparent to some that their friendship had blossomed into love. For others, the relationship between the fifty-eight-year-old Oxford don and renowned Christian writer, and the forty-year old American divorced mother of two, for some, was nothing short of scandalous.

In 1956, the British government refused to extend Joy’s visa. Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony so that she could remain in England. They were married in April. He appealed to the Anglican Church for a sacramental marriage, but the Bishop of Oxford refused—Joy was divorced, and the Church could not condone their marriage.

In early 1957, Joy was standing in her kitchen when she collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital. X-rays showed that her body was filled with cancer. ‘There were malignant tumors in her breast and her bones were riddled with cancer.’ She was given no more than a few weeks to live.

Lewis contacted an Anglican priest, ‘purported to have the gift of spiritual healing’, and related Joy’s dying wish to be married in a church.

Father Bide recalled that he did not feel he could in good conscience deny this poor soul her wish, even though she was not in his diocese. The next day, March 21, 1957, he anointed her with oil, prayed for healing, and then in the presence of Warren Lewis and one of the sisters at the hospital, administered the sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Communion. Within a few minutes an apparently dying Joy Davidman became Mrs. C.S. Lewis.

Joy was then sent home to die.

But she didn’t die. The cancer went into remission, and from Lewis’ own account, together they enjoyed a happy, fulfilling and loving relationship.  She and Lewis spent much time together, traveled, and vacationed with friends.

Joy and Jack [as Lewis was called by his friends] were like two school-aged youth who were cutting up and having a wonderful time. That Joy had brought great happiness to Jack became evident by what he wrote to one friend: “It’s funny having at 59 the sort of happiness most men have in their twenties. . .Thou has kept the good wine till now.”

Nonetheless in the Spring of 1960 the cancer returned, and Joy Davidman Lewis died on July 13 of that year. Less than a month after her death C.S. Lewis started putting his grief to paper, writings that would eventually be published as A Grief Observed.

A Grief Observed

Below are my reflections on this wonderful book, which in my view reads like a heart-wrenching love story between Lewis, his wife, Helen Joy Davidman (whom he refers to as H.), and God.

Much of the book asks questions of God. Where is God?  Will his (Lewis’) memory of H. remain true to her reality? Can the dead feel hurt the way the living can? Are the dead really at peace?   Is God in fact good? If so, why do we hurt so? If our faith crumbles at the first test, what does it say about its quality? Is it even faith at all?

He then records the impact time and distance has on his grief.  They create clarity, and a quiet acceptance., a lighter heart. He also accepts death and the resulting bereavement as just another phase of married love, ‘as surely as autumn follows summer.’

He comes to realize that he has become forever changed by his relationship with H., chides himself for obsessing on his own grief, and not according God and H. the ‘praise’ due them for the gift that was H.. He writes an open letter to H., whom he believes can see more of him from beyond the grave than ever before, maintaining their love will continue, just as God’s love for us continues. Finally he figuratively releases her to God and to heaven, the Eternal Fountain.

Where is God?

Lewis was not a stranger to the loss of a loved one to cancer–both of his parents died of the disease. ‘Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue?’ [3]

One of the first questions he asks is simple: ‘Where is God?’ Lewis voices the sense of abandonment he feels. It’s as if when Joy died, God disappeared as well.

[W]here is God…When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. [4]

You feel at one with the great genius. You may not have the perspicacity of his mind, his matchless sense of reason, but you can identify with his humanity laid bare.  Who hasn’t felt this sense of abandonment in the depth of crisis, the sense of desertion? Who hasn’t felt like saying, ‘God, I thought you loved me, that you were on my side? Where are you now?’ ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani’ Jesus cries on the cross, Mark, 15:34.  David asks the same thing in Psalm 22:1: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This is human emotion at its rawest, most vulnerable. The trappings of cold intellectual analysis, of scholarly psychological reasoning, is dashed aside, and the soul, in all its anguish, in all its desperation, is laid bare in naked honesty for all to see.

Images vs. Reality

Lewis wonders if his memory of Joy will remain true to her reality. How can he be sure that the image that he will retain of Joy will in fact be of the real Joy? He recalls meeting a man that he had not seen for ten years, and the reality of the man turned out to be different from the image he had of him. [5]

What if he has already begun to remember an image of her, and not the real person? The image, the memory of her, has the disadvantage of being obedient to your memory, your thoughts and feelings. She has no say in the matter.

What pitiable cant to say, “She will live forever in my memory! Live? That is exactly what she won’t do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them…It was H. I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest.’ [6]

‘At Peace’ and ‘In God’s Hands’

Lewis asks very pointed questions on the basic ‘goodness’ of God.

‘She is in God’s hands’ is a well-known aphorism one hears when a loved one dies.  Or, equally common, ‘She’s at peace.’  How can we be sure that she is, in fact, at peace?  How do we know that there is no anguish on the other side?  He asks: ‘How do they know that she is “at rest?”  Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?’ [7]

Another question, how do we know that the dead are in fact in God’s hands?  ‘[S]he was in God’s hands all the time., and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body?’ [8]

Is this a realistic possibility, or just the cry of a grieving husband?  Do the dead hurt? Does all feeling end when we die?  Is there heartache on the ‘other side’, even in heaven? Is God’s goodness consistent with hurting us, for if it is, then ‘He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.’ [9]

The Cosmic Sadist

Again, he asks, is God, in fact, good?  He refers to the ‘many prayers’ he and Joy offered, and the hopes that were raised.

What chokes every prayer and hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had.  Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-rays photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were “led up the garden path.” Time after time, when he seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture. [10]

The following day, Lewis writes.

I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought…Is it rational to believe in a bad God…in a God as bad as all that? The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile? [11]

On reflection, as if reviewing his previous thoughts with a fresh pair of eyes, he appears to place a new perspective on the grief he is experiencing:

Why do I make room in mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feelings disguise itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…Who still thinks that there is some device…which will make pain not be pain? It doesn’t really matter if you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie on your lap. The drill drills on.  [12]

The Quality of Faith

The debate on whether God is good or not, whether He is in fact the Cosmic Sadist, leads to another question. What is the quality of your faith? We are not promised a life without pain.  ‘I had been warned—I had warned myself—not to reckon on worldly happiness.  We were even promised sufferings.’ [13]

Does suffering measure the strength of one’s faith? A barometer of the strength or weakness of it? What does it say about your faith if it falls apart at the first gust of suffering?   After all, Lewis is not experiencing anything he should not have prepared for. Furthermore if your faith collapse when faced with its first real test, was your faith in fact real or imagined? And the sooner you became aware of its frailty, wouldn’t it be for the better?

If my house had collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which “took these things into account” was not faith but imagination…I must surely admit…that if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better.  And only suffering can do that. [14]

The faith that he addresses goes far beyond the hope for a life with Joy; it refers to his faith in life, the faith that he has displayed to others, to the world.  ‘If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.’ [15]

Later in the chapter, he adds that this this test of faith is not for God to determine the quality of your faith, but for you. [16] ‘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.

This begs the question, what does the way in which you handle grief say about your faith? Is it okay to curse God and die, like Job’s wife suggested? (Job 2:9) How do you pull through?

Further introspection reveals a growing awareness of a preoccupation with himself, rather than with Joy.

What sort of lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers?  Even the insane words, “Come back,” is all for my own sake.   I never even raised the question whether such a return, if it were possible, was good for her. I want her back as ingredient in the restoration of my past. (His italics.) Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the first martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal? [17]

A Lighter Heart

One day, Lewis writes, his heart was lighter ‘than it had been for many weeks.’ Time and distance placed a different lens on Joy’s death. It was as if Joy’s essence became clear when it was not clouded by tears and grief.  ‘[A]t the very moment when…I mourned H. least, I remembered her best…It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.’ [18]

His interpretation: ‘You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears.  You can’t get what you want if you want it too desperately…’ [19] It was as if grief created suspense. ‘It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object.’ And of course, the suspense is never resolved. It is only fades away when the sense of grief dissipates.

Just Another Phase of Married Love

Marriage, for Lewis, was a relationship where the husband and wife could realize their completeness. It was as if, for the bachelor in his late fifties, marriage was the vehicle that made him whole, and completed Joy as well—it made both the husband and wife complete.

‘There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them…Jointly the two become fully human. “In the image of God created he them.”’ [His italics.]. [20]

But then, what if one spouse dies? He theorizes that not only does the spouse who is left behind grieve, but the one who dies grieves as well—they both grieve. And this time of bereavement is in fact another phase of love. He further develops his point. You can think of marriage–and all the emotions that are part of it: happiness, sorrow, anticipation, dread, as a natural outcome of courtship. A phase in the relationship between a man and a woman. So too, bereavement, the natural consequence of losing one’s spouse, as will inevitably happen, is another phase in that relationship.

If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pain of separation …then for both lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.  It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. [21]

This tends to fly in the face of current thinking that implies there are no uniquely masculine or feminine qualities, which in turn implies women and men are whole in and of themselves, who don’t need each other. (How would Lewis respond to a gender-neutral society that is being promoted by some whom many consider to be the cultural elites and intellectual elites of today?)

the famous phrase: ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle?’ [22]

Lewis still seems torn between the need to grieve and the relief that he feels when the full sense of bereavement has passed. Even though ‘feeling better’ fosters a sense of shame, [22] he concludes that moving away from the bereavement phase is actually a good thing.

Passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow…that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality, her otherness…Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right. This is good and tonic. [23]

Finally he is at peace with her passing.  At peace with the idea of celebrating her life, their time together. ‘I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.’ [24]

Forever Changed

Lewis relates going for a walk, visiting old haunts. These walks or ‘the long rambles’ [25], as he calls them, reminded him of his old happiness, the happiness of pre-Joy, bachelor days. This he finds ‘horrible,’ the ‘old happiness,’ ‘insipid.’ However there have been two fundamental changes realized along this journey of sorrow. First, the ‘locked door’ to God is no longer locked; and the ‘image’ of Joy (vs. the reality) is no longer an issue.


Lewis recalls that he has talked about himself, about Joy, and about God, in that order. The opposite of what it should be. [26] He has not once praised them.  ‘Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift.’ [27] He has lost the ‘fruition’ of Joy, and is far away from the fruition he some day hopes to have of God. Praise is one way of retrieving that ‘fruit.’ ‘[B]y praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, [and] in some degree, enjoy him. Better than nothing.’ [28]

Reality vs. Image

Lewis returns to the image vs. reality comparison as it pertains to both Joy and to God–a bad photograph and a cold thin wafer. The ‘image’ of Joy, a romanticized image of her, and of God, is no longer present. ‘I want Christ, not something that resembles Him. I want H., not something that is like her’. [ 29] The reality of both, with all the hurt, the pain, is what he wants.   He wants her, in all her ‘resistances,’ ‘faults,’ and ‘unexpectedness.’  Her ‘independent reality.’ ‘That is what he (and we) should love after she is dead.

Lewis questions his growing acceptance of Joy’s death, and of his reconnection (or sliding back, as he calls it) to God. Is the only reason for his reunification with God the hope of seeing Joy again? is this the price that must be paid?  He asks, ‘Lord, are these your real terms? Can I meet H. again only if I learn to love you so much that I don’t care whether I meet her or not?’ [30]

A Final Note to H.

Finally Lewis writes to Joy directly, directly to his departed love.

It is often thought that the dead see us. And we assume, whether reasonably or not, that if they see us at all they see us more clearly than before. Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there is in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives—to both, but perhaps especially to the woman—a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees. [31]

To the ‘Eternal Fountain’

In the final lines of A Grief Observed, Lewis figuratively lets go, releases Joy to be at peace with God.

How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back? She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eternal fontana. [32]

This is taken from Dante’s Paradise, the third part of his Divine Comedy. [33] “So I prayed; and as distant as she was, she smiled and gazed at me. Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain.”

Final Thoughts

The ‘grief’ in A Grief Observed stems from two sources. One, from the heartbreak of losing a loved one, a soulmate, a kindred spirit. The other, from the sense of being abandoned by God, the God whom you expect to be your Caregiver, your Comforter, your Protector. At the end of the piece however, both Joy and Lewis accept their circumstance, their sorrow, and release it to God.

Finally, a note on the 1993 movie Shadowlands, the feature film based on the relationship between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is informed that ‘This is a True Story’.  Frankly, the caption should read, ‘This is based on a true story.’  Lewis is depicted as a brilliant academician, but devoid of affection, devoid of personal warmth, devoid of love, even. Joy is a brash, independent woman, a feminist ahead of her time, who speaks her mind, and damn the consequences.  What’s missing, in my view, is their essential Christianity. The name ‘Jesus’ is mentioned exactly once throughout the entire film. Yet, their Christian belief is the thing that brought them together in the first place. Sure, Joy does confess that she is a Christian, but it’s done, practically, in passing. Blink, and you’ll miss it. She says that she is in awe of his writings, but the audience is not told why. Never do we see Joy and Jack praying together, even though he says in A Grief Observed that they both prayed throughout her illness.

In the DVD of the film, in the Special Features section, the real Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and Lewis stepson, is interviewed. He says: ‘Shadowlands is an exceptional concept from its very beginning. It was a piece designed entirely to be fiction, loosely based on real factual happenings in the lives of my stepfather, my mother, and indeed myself.’ [34] The omission of the principal characters’ Christianity, which, perhaps makes the film accessible to a wide, diverse audience, is in my view, unfortunate, because the audience is left with a perception of the main characters that is tragically incomplete.

© Weldon Turner, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Next month, To Heaven and Back II


C S Lewis

Credit: John Chillingworth / Stringer

Collection: Picture Post

25th November 1950: Irish-born academic, writer and Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963). As a Fellow and Tutor of Magdalen College he taught at Oxford from 1925 to 1954. Original Publication: Picture Post – 5159 – Eternal Oxford – pub. 1950 (Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Editorial license secured.


[1] C.S. Lewis Institute, accessed January 28, 2017,
[2] Christianity Today, accessed January 28, 2017,
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, Harper One, 2007, p 661
[4] Lewis, p 658
[5] Lewis, p 664.
[6] Lewis, p 664
[7] Lewis, p 667
[8] Lewis, p 667
[9] Lewis, p 667
[10] Lewis, pp 668-669
[11] Lewis, p 669
[12] Lewis, p 670
[13] Lewis, p 671
[14] Lewis, p 672
[15] Lewis, p 672
[16] Lewis, p 678
[17] Lewis, p 673-674
[18] Lewis, p 675
[19] Lewis, p 675
[20] Lewis, p 677
[21] Lewis, p 677
[22] Lewis, p 679
[23] Lewis, pp 678-679
[24] Lewis p 680
[25] Lewis, p 682
[26] Lewis, p 682
[27] Lewis, p 682
[28] Lewis, p 682
[29] Lewis, p 684
[30] Lewis, p 685
[31] Lewis, p 686
[32] Lewis, p 688
[33] The Official Website of C.S. Lewis, accessed January 28, 2017,
[34] Shadowlands, Home Box Office, 1998


C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, Harper One, 2007


Shadowlands, Home Box Office, 1998


C.S. Lewis Institute,

Christianity Today,

The Official Website of C.S. Lewis,

One thought on “Reflections on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed”

  1. I really appreciate This writing. Very insightful and the feelings that cs Lewis wrote about I can relate about 100 percent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.