On my dresser there is a photograph. It depicts my one-year-old daughter affectionately climbing on my back as I enjoy a cold post-lunch beer on a sunny early-August day in Seneca Falls, NY. I had recently completed my second year as a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College, Michigan.
I loved my job, my students, my colleagues, and our little town: I was delirious in the life which I had spent my years in graduate school hoping against hope to attain. Now we were stopping at a site of interest to American history en route to an old friend’s wedding in the New Hampshire mountains. We drove out via Niagara Falls and returned via beautiful Montreal. It was an idyllic trip; all was well and good.
A Season of Grief
Then, the week before classes resumed in the fall, my department chair informed me—contrary to some thirty months’ worth of explicitly stated expectations from everyone including the college president—that, for reasons beyond my control and unrelated to my satisfactory performance, my contract would not be extended beyond the forthcoming year.
Nothing but the death of my wife and/or daughter could have so thoroughly and abruptly unraveled my world. I was devastated. Fondly-held visions of a long and happy life serving a beloved college vanished. Melodramatic as it may sound, I felt personally the keenness of Romeo’s anguished rebuke to his priest-confessor: “Banished! Be merciful; say death!”
It is now three years since I left Hillsdale. I have often stared wistfully at that photograph of a moment which appears in retrospect as the high-watermark of my happiness. I have every reason to anticipate future joys. Nonetheless, it seems impossible that life will ever be quite that good again. Consequently the past three years are best characterized as a season of grief.
Times of Doubt
It is a product of my upbringing as an English evangelical that in times of doubt I turn to C.S. Lewis. When his wife, Joy Davidman, succumbed to cancer in 1960, the Northern Irish writer and Cambridge don penned a memoir of his grief that has since comforted many fellow- sufferers. Just as Augustine’s Confessions moves upward from the lower to the higher loves, Lewis’s memoir ascends from the rawest expressions of inchoate despair to the faintest glimmer of meaning. In four brief chapters he proceeds from pained anger at the apparent purposelessness of suffering, to the possibility of meaning and a fragile sense of God’s superintending goodness.
In spite of his fame as a great Christian apologist, Lewis began A Grief Observed by expressing a hopeless sense of abandonment, asking: “Why is [God] so present a commander in times of prosperity and so very absent in time of trouble? … The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him.”
For my part, having never felt worthy of my position at Hillsdale I never blamed God for removing it from me. I share Lewis’s sense that God seems closest in our joys, however. Surrounded by fellow Christians, filled with the pleasure of worshiping each Sunday ‘in the beauty of holiness’ within a thriving traditionalist Anglican parish, I had never felt God’s grace and goodness so intensely.
Was this just the refracted glow of my own egoistic satisfaction? Or does God give us such pleasures so that we can distinguish the real source of lasting joy only later? I’m not sure; neither was Lewis.
Loss Like a Death
In his second chapter Lewis moves from anger to a numbing, pervasive sadness. Thinking of Joy’s departed soul, he reflects that “you never know how much you really believe something until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you… Apparently the faith—I thought it faith—which enables me to pray for the other dead has seemed strong only because I never really cared.”
This spiritual struggle is viewed most clearly in light of a concerned friend’s reminder that “we do not mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Lewis inquires how he can take comfort in a verse “obviously meant for our betters,” meaning the dead, whose grief is past.
For in the world of the dead all is past: “‘[Joy] is dead,’ is to say, ‘All that is gone’ … Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.’” This comes home in the nature of Lewis’s grief. He does not mourn for Joy but for himself. “If a mother is mourning not for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the dead child has not lost the end for which it was created.” What of herself, however?
During the first two years after my departure from Hillsdale I experienced precisely this anguish. The loss was indeed like a death; like many deaths, in fact. All my old life, each of my friends, students, and colleagues was gone in an instant, placed beyond my reach. Yet they remained happy—their world continued. This loss affected only me, ended only my happiness. I was alone in a solitary grief.
Returning to thoughts of past happiness with involuntary frequency, slipping continually into the mental world of a lost past, interfered with my perception of reality. Lewis found the same in his grief: “Grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything… Up until this I never had enough time. Now there is nothing but time.”
Wrestle with Reality
In chapter three Lewis moves haltingly from aimless sadness to a fragile perception of meaning. He recants his earlier statements of raw anger: “All that stuff about ‘the Cosmic Sadist’ [i.e. God] was not so much the expression of thought as of hatred. I was getting from it the only pleasure a man in anguish can get; the pleasure of hitting back.” I often felt and succumbed to this temptation, morosely telling myself and (far too often) sympathetic others that my bereft state and attendant grief testified that no one in Hillsdale had ever really cared about me—no one that mattered, anyway.
The truth is far more benign. We are all bound up in our own affairs so thoroughly that few of us really think about the needs of others, at least not often or for long. Indeed, there were many who did plead my cause and had nothing personally to gain by doing so. Lashing out does feel good for a few seconds and is easier than facing reality, however.
Lewis does begin to wrestle with reality, and with the true God. He does so in a way that only one who has felt real grief can, not glibly as those who offer well-meant aphorisms. Mentally returning, one suspects, to his celebrated work The Problem of Pain, Lewis observes:
“The more we believe that God hurts us only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness… The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting… Take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary there is no God, or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary.”
However deep his pain, Lewis cannot abandon his faith in a God who wills the good. But this is not an easy and simple salve; it does not magically cure all wounds. Indeed, the sovereign God seems to give incomprehensible wounds which never heal.
The end, Lewis comes to see, is faith: “God has 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.” Again, this is no simple formula. For all his anguish, Lewis would not unlive the years he spent with Joy. Likewise, my years in Hillsdale were so joyful and formative that I can never regret them.
I would do it over if I could, pain and all, but the pain is awful, and—contrary to the old adage—time does not heal. As Lewis puts it: “To say the patient is ‘getting over it’ after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another… Presently he’ll get his strength back and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurring pain in his stump all his life.”
As Good as Things Get
In his concluding chapter Lewis returns to his defiant, unregretful gratitude for past happiness. He moves from grudging recognition of God’s goodness to explicit though feeble expression of real gladness. Attempting to recall his life before Joy, Lewis writes that his earlier happiness “seemed to me horrid … insipid. I find that I don’t want to go back and be happy again in that way. It frightens me to think that a mere going back should even be possible. For this fate would seem to me the worst of all, to reach a state in which my years of love and marriage would seem a charming episode—like a holiday.”
I know this fear well. Often it seems that my lingering grief is best summed up by one haunting line in Simon and Garfunkel’s song ‘America’: “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” In time, all dreams are forgotten, but those whose grief is the loss of real and life-giving happiness don’t want to forget.
Just as Orpheus ventured all in attempting to recall his departed love, Eurydice, to life, I would give much to relive even one day of those years. This is as close as Lewis comes in A Grief Observed to defining something we might call ‘healing’ (he doesn’t use the term). The pain of loss does not subside; it can never. Gladness in recalling the past joy is deeper and more lasting, however. That may be as good as things get for most of us in this life.
Lewis’s work has been a comfort to me, and I have long considered putting this in writing. I do so now partly at the urging of a friend who felt my thoughts might be of some benefit to others. That seems a rather conceited hope, frankly. I suppose this is mostly a cathartic exercise. After the three happiest of fat years, things appear to be ‘trending upward’ for my family at the close of three relatively lean ones. This symmetry suggests an apt moment for summative reflection.
More, though, I would wish everyone with whom I shared those wonderful years to know how completely I loved each moment. The acuteness recedes, but properly speaking grief never heals. In some ways bitter resentment would be easier, but I can’t truly feel any such thing.
I will always wish to go back.