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The facing of fear in faith

12 May 2023

Inspired by C.S. Lewis, Philip Graham reflects on grief and acceptance


IT IS 60 years since, in 1963, C. S. Lewis put his name to an eloquent essay, A Grief Observed, that he wrote in his early sixties in the few weeks after the death from cancer of his wife, Joy Davidman. She was a much younger woman, whom he had met late in life and with whom he had enjoyed an idyllically happy marriage for four years. The essay had been published anonymously two years previously, in 1961.

Lewis begins with the striking sentence: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” He goes on: “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.” It seems that another thing that no one ever told him is that, for many psychologists, following William James, the sensation of being afraid is fear; so, although he may not have been conscious of it, Lewis was afraid.

FEAR is not usually linked to grief. In her influential book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She does not mention fear, except in so far as someone else’s death inevitably makes us fear our own. Lewis gives us possible reasons for his fear, of which that is not one.

He first describes his concern that he will forget what “H” (the pseudonym that he uses for his wife) was really like. He is worried that his memory will distort her personality, her voice, her appearance. He complains that he does not have one decent photograph of her.

A more pervasive fear — and one to which he keeps returning — is that he will lose his faith in the goodness of God. It is this fear that he writes about at greatest length. He is not afraid that his faith in God will disappear; he sees this as unlikely. He writes: “The conclusion is not, ‘So there’s no God, after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like — deceive yourself no longer.’”

He is deeply concerned that he will be trapped into believing in a bad God, “the Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile”. He asks whether his faith has been only a “house of cards”, blown down at the first calamity. Perhaps, he ponders, it is our values that are depraved: it is God alone who thinks that what we regard as bad is, in fact, good; but he rejects this idea as untenable. Nevertheless, his grief is constantly plagued by the recollection of H’s “extremities of torture” during her illness, and serious doubts that God should accept such pain as necessary in his scheme of things.

There are, of course, other fears and anxieties, although these are not mentioned at such length. He is frightened by the degree to which he has become self-absorbed, and castigates himself for it. “I must think more about H and less about myself.” He is frightened, too, that his grief will lose its intensity: “Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?”

Another concern is that he will return to the enjoyment of activities that gave him pleasure in his bachelor days before he met H. This might, he thinks, transform his years with H into a mere “delightful interlude”, which is not how he wants to see his time with her.

For most people whose bereavement has involved the loss of a partner, sometimes of very long standing, there may well be an overriding fear of loneliness. If, for decades, one has enjoyed the company of someone to talk to, someone to enjoy the pleasures of life with –— good food, music, physical intimacy and comfort, the opportunity to discuss difficult life decisions; the list goes on — loss may well bring with it a terrible dread of what life will be like without such a companion.

Lewis clearly did not suffer from a fear of loneliness, surely because the life of an Oxford don, single or widowed, living in college rooms, is — or can be — highly sociable. The company of other dons every evening for dinner at High Table is a safeguard against loneliness. Lewis does write about the delights of the shared life that he has had with his wife, but he does not attribute any part of his sensation of fear to the fact that he now faces a future without such companionship.

TOWARDS the end of his essay, he ruminates on the content of his grief. He regrets that his notes about grief have been in what he regards as precisely the wrong order: first about himself, then about H, and only finally about God. This is the reverse of what he thinks would be appropriate. So, in the last pages of his essay, Lewis tries to deal with his fears by making sense of the way in which he sees God, H, and himself.

Clearly, it is of paramount importance to him that he should retain his faith in the goodness of God. He seems to achieve this by choosing to regard the questions that he is asking of God as meaningless. This might be true if, as he suggests, God is what he calls “iconoclastic”. If this is so, then perhaps reality as we know it does not exist; so that what we fear does not exist. This train of thought seems to satisfy him.

The reasons thta Lewis gives for his fearfulness while he is in grief will be relevant for many of us. For him, his belief in God and in the goodness of God gave his life meaning. The death of H shook this belief to the point of destruction. Instead of the goodness of God, he began to consider ways in which he could retain his belief in a God who had taken from him the greatest gift that he had ever received. Despite what he considered the ridiculous anthropomorphism of such thinking, he began to consider whether he could continue to believe in a God who was so wicked.

Other religious believers, without going to this extreme, will find their faith profoundly shaken, or even lose it. Where does this leave the believer for whom the meaning of life is similarly bound inextricably to a divine presence? Surely, in what can be considered only a frightening void.

AN ACCEPTANCE of fear as an integral part of grief might just enable the bereaved to deal more effectively with their emotions. If we can admit, honestly and without feeling selfish or self-absorbed, that it is natural to feel frightened as well as bereft when someone close to us dies, perhaps this might help us to look our own demise in the face and accept its inevitability.

Perhaps, if we can acknowledge the threat to the meaning that we give life which arises when a loved one dies, we can begin to rebuild the framework of beliefs which has sustained us until this point. Throughout life, facing our fears and working out ways to deal with what we are frightened of is always a first step towards moving on. Facing the fear in grief is surely no exception.

Philip Graham is Emeritus Professor of Child Psychiatry at University College London.

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