24 pages 48 minutes read

C. S. Lewis

A Grief Observed

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1961

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Clive Staples Lewis (1888-1963) C.S. Lewis was a British writer and academic, renowned for his works on Christianity, and best remembered today as the author of the children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia. He graduated from Oxford University and taught there until 1954 when he became Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. A Grief Observed was originally publishedunder the pseudonym N.W. Clerk and attributed to Lewis only after his death.

 A Grief Observed “is a stark recounting of one man’s studied attempts to come to grips with and in the end defeat the emotional paralysis of the most shattering grief of his life” (XV). Comprised of four chapters, the book chronicles Lewis’s progression through various stages of grief as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife. Each chapter describes a new phase of mourning, as Lewis explores his thoughts and feelingsin unvarnished, deeply personal terms that encompass shock, anger and despair, and finally reach acceptance.

In the Foreword, Madeleine L’Engle contrasts her own bereavement following the death of her husband after a long life and marriage with Lewis’s experience of losing his wife at age forty-five, after a short marriage. Reading A Grief Observed showed L’Engle that while grieving is a very individual experience, there are universally-shared elements and feelings. L’Engle admires the honesty of Lewis’s text, especially his willingness to expose his anger at God.

Douglas Gresham provides background information about C. S. Lewis’s wife and Douglas’s mother, Helen Joy Gresham, the “H” of the book in the Introduction. Acknowledging the confusion of fact and fiction concerning their relationship, he asserts that “the most important part of the story pertaining to this book is simply a recognition of the great love that grew between them until it was an almost visible incandescence” (XVIII), even while both knew that due to Helen’s illness, her death was imminent.

In the beginning of the book, Lewis describes his initial shock in the immediate aftermath of H.’s death as grief descends over his existence, becoming, “the invisible blanket between the world and me” (3). He depicts his preoccupation with his loss and the isolating effects of grief, the fleeting moments when everything appears all right, followed by a plunge into despair. He worries about the effects of time on his memories of Helen, fearing that the distinct reality of Helen is slipping away, slowly being replaced by his curated images of her.

Lewis wonders where Helen is now and what she is experiencing. He rejects versions of heaven as an earthly paradise used to console the bereaved for having no basis in scripture. His previously-held beliefs have been shaken and turned upside down when he finds no solace in God. He questions how we know whether the dead are, in fact, at peace. Doubting the nature of—but never the existence of—God, Lewis questions previous assumptions of God’s benevolence, calling him the “Cosmic Sadist.”

Lewis experiences the guilt of moving forward while recognizing Helen would urge him to move on. He chronicles the recursive nature of grief, moving forward only to unexpectedly circle back to the profound pain of loss. He tries an intellectual approach instead: since he always knew that death was inevitable, why is it so painful?

As his grief unfolds, Lewis gains some perspective and is able to reflect on his experience. Lewis is stunned at his own self-absorption, realizing that he has been more focused on himself than Helen. He reflects on what she meant to him, and the nature of marriage and its relationship to God. Realizing that we are not able to understand God, Lewis is able to reconcile his grief with his faith, reaching a new understanding of the mystery of God, as well as an appreciation for what he has gained in the process: “In the end what shines through the last pages of his journal of grief is an affirmation of love, his love for [Helen] and hers for him, and that love is in the context of God’s love” (XI).

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