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.
– C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed
I reread A Grief Observed last week when a friend asked me for recommendations of books on grief. After offering to loan her my copy, I felt this sudden shame that I had never really read it. I bought it along with a pile of books on grief a couple of years ago, and had never given it more than a glance. I knew it was a seminal piece and wondered why I hadn’t really approached it. I assume it was because at the time I was looking for more theoretical work. I read The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader and Grief: Normal, Complicated, Traumatic by Linda Schupp, and The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonanno all of which were written from a psychological and social perspective, not a personal one. I know I sat down and read a bit of A Grief Observed before deciding it was not going to satisfy me, or maybe I was repelled because his experience was so different than mine.
That happened a lot as I started delving into books on grief. Even though I wrote a very personal memoir of my own, I was uncomfortable, even annoyed when reading other emotional accounts. Why? Was it too close? Or too different? It’s not as though I wasn’t willing to get down in my own emotional muck, but reading about others, their intimacies with grief, would sometimes make me cringe. I lacked patience for it. Maybe when I looked at A Grief Observed the first time around, I felt that the experience of this brilliant man from another era losing his wife couldn’t possibly relate to my loss of a child. Maybe I was protective of my mourning, as if someone else’s might muddy it.
A lot changes. I am two years further into my next book, which was still in the infant stage when I bought the pile of grief books and Lewis’ words work for me now. It is his description of his thought process that is so astounding. He really does observe his mind as a way of understanding the radical perspective on life that grief affords. Lewis’ mind is so rare and intelligent it cannot help but ask the hardest questions that grief forces up.
The quote that begins “If I had really cared…” gets at the heart of why grief feels so overwhelming to someone who has not known it’s deep passages before, and the innocence that is lost when that happens. How we thought we knew sadness until it punched us, like a bucket full of nails. I remember when I was deep in, feeling a visceral connection to all the sadness there is, and that mine was but a salty drop in the tsunami of sorrow that perpetually encompasses the world. I couldn’t fathom it. How had I missed all the suffering everywhere? My eyes no longer skipped past the horror stories in the paper every day. They were always there, but I had never cared! There was shame in that realization, but also deep longing. A desire to help anyone who was facing a tragic reality.
A neighbor who lived directly across the street was grieving her daughter who was killed in a random shooting at school. How could she get out of bed in the morning? And how could I? And where had I been hiding all my life not to notice that the worst things imaginable actually happen on my own street? In my own home.
Eventually one crawls out of the cave and learns to play along in the real world. It’s what people mean when they say, “Life goes on.” We have to try to forget our sadness and at first that feels like a betrayal. Our loyalty to the ones we lost is at stake, but our own lives are calling us back into the sunlight. I think those of us who know grief remain married to it on some level and we have to live the rest of our lives balancing the dark that remains. We must be complicit in a world that goes on, but we carry the burden of sadness to our graves. And for me that balance felt lopsided until it didn’t, and one day I found I could pay attention to the sadness, honor it when it called, and release it when it brought me to my knees. Now I find I can simply marvel at another person’s sorrow, rather than take on the weight of it, when I have the privilege to witness its expression.