Grief has shadowed me for the past several weeks.
In one sense, I’m not surprised. As a writer and brain researcher, I spend a fair amount of time exploring pain in its many forms, including grief.
Grief feels like pain shoved off a precipice, freefalling through the fathomless loss of someone we love.
In psychological terms, we experience grief in seven stages, although it’s perfectly natural to do some jumping back and forth between them:
- Denial. We react to the first blow of loss with something like numbed shock.
- Sorrow. Pain is the delayed reaction as we fully realize the loss.
- Anger. We rail against the pain with fists and words and tears. In our desperation to bridge the gap between us and our loved one, we beg, bargain, or demand that God either bring the loved one back or carry us to the same shore.
- Loneliness. Life without our loved one can feel blank and lonely, like living in a room that’s been emptied of its previous inhabitants and belongings.
- The Upward Turn. We slowly learn to fill the empty space with memories and meaning.
- Reconstruction. We rebuild a new life in the space. This instinct is as deeply engrained in us as other creatures rebuilding burrows and nests after desolate winter. We build for ourselves new tasks, new relationships, and new purpose.
- Acceptance. New purpose gives us new hope. Though we carry the loss with us always, time and purpose take away the worst of the pain. We find a way forward, carrying our loved one with us in memory and everlasting love.
Although I understand these steps in a professional sense, I’ve experienced very little grief first-hand.
So, I’ll be honest. I don’t know why grief has eclipsed my thoughts so much lately.
Maybe, God help me, I’m being prepared somehow for loss that inevitably comes to us all.
But it’s also possible, even probable, that I’m writing for someone else. Maybe someone I don’t even know.
Maybe God has had you, dear reader I’ve never met, on his heart as I write these words. And if you’re not a God-believer, I hope you’ll still give my words a chance.
All I can say is, the urge has become so strong that I can’t ignore it any longer. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I must write about grief.
Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I right in the middle of another series. I apologize for the interruption. We’ll get back to that series next week.
Two Griefs Observed
I want to start by describing two personal brushes with grief I’ve had recently.
About a year and a half ago, my father died. And now maybe you’re wondering why I said I haven’t felt deep grief myself.
The long answer will have to wait for another time – it involves my parents’ turbulent marriage and my father’s exit from our home nearly forty years ago, when I was still a child.
The short answer is, I grieved him then, as a child. And then I learned to live life without him. Of course, there were occasional phone calls and visits. But for four decades, I only skimmed the surface of my father’s life and he mine.
He re-married a magnificent woman, my stepmother, and helped raised her two youngest children to adulthood. In the ways that matter, they are as much his family as I am.
It was my stepsister who told me Dad was dying. Thanks to her and my mom, who kept in touch with his family, I was able to travel to his home a few states away in time to say goodbye. Then, surrounded by friends and family who loved him dearly, he died.
I didn’t attend his memorial service. I told myself at the time that life circumstances made it impossible. My family and I had just moved across the country so my husband could start a new job. I was in the middle of unpacking a new house and writing a book. Life was hectic.
But now, I suspect these were just excuses for the bare-bones fact that I didn’t want to grieve him all over again. Grief came, anyway. But it felt – and I hope this will make sense – like a pain I had long been used to, like a childhood scar or re-fused bone.
The pain is still new for my stepmom and stepsister. Occasionally, they still post to Dad’s Facebook account, keeping it up to date with family doings and milestones. The grandkids are growing up so fast, they say. They wish he could see for himself.
And I grieve their loss, because it is much fresher than my own. The empty space in their lives is much newer, they’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.
The second is more like a prelude to grief. It will make more sense if I say it has to do with a recent reminder of my own mortality.
Over the last couple years, I had noticed a few odd spots on my skin, particularly in areas that got a lot of sun exposure – and a few serious sunburns – in my younger years. Then they began to crust over and bleed.
I scheduled an appointment with my dermatologist. “What brings you in today?” she asked as I settled into the treatment chair.
“Well…I hope it’s nothing serious,” I smiled back, forcing a flippancy I didn’t feel into the words. “See, I have these spots…”
My attempts at lightheartedness crumbled in direct proportion to the heavy concern filling her face. “Hmm. Yes, I see,” she said gravely. “You were wise to come in when you did.”
She moved around the room, preparing instruments and biopsy bags.
“So, if the biopsy comes back positive for…cancer,” I said – feeling that if I said the word out loud, it wouldn’t frighten me so much – “how would we treat that?”
“Radiation therapy, most likely,” she said quickly. Too quickly. Like she knew something she didn’t want to say yet. She swiftly removed the offending tissue, explaining that her office would call within a week if the biopsy showed anything of concern.
Six days came and went, and I started to relax. As the old saying goes: no news is good news. But on the seventh morning, the phone call came.
“Unfortunately, your biopsy came back positive for basal cell carcinoma. Are you familiar with that?”
“N-no.” I was embarrassed to say it, because as a college professor I had taught multiple classes on human physiology to pre-medical and pre-nursing students. In that moment, though, with my heart pounding in my ears, I could not make sense of any of her words.
“Well, first you should know, it’s not usually invasive, and it’s not life-threatening.”
She went on to explain next steps of consultation and treatment. Some basic instinct kicked in, because I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation. I mechanically wrote everything down, and even managed to ask a few questions.
But my mind kept circling back to her first words. Cancer, but not life-threatening. Okay, I thought. I think I can handle this.
As soon as I got off the phone, I called my husband.
“Got a few minutes?”
“Sorry, Honey, I’m running to a meeting. Is it something quick?”
No cancer news, no matter how non-life-threatening, should be casually tossed at someone in a thirty-second phone call.
“Just call me back when you get out,” I said, in my best, breezy tone. “It can wait.”
The news shook him. “Google it,” I tried to reassure him. “If I had to get skin cancer, this is the best kind to get. It’s easily treated and managed.”
But I could still feel waves of worry wash through him and crash over our conversation. His voice trembled and swelled with tears.
I think, for a short time, he thought he was going to lose me.
And I understood his fear.
For the few seconds between the words “carcinoma” and “not life-threatening,” I wondered if I was going to die.
We don’t often think about our own death. In fact, I read an article just this week about how the brain processes our own death. And the short answer is, it doesn’t. Or it simply can’t.
To quote the researchers, our brains simply can’t understand “the idea of ending, of nothing, of complete annihilation.”
I guess this explains why it doesn’t cross our minds very often.
But it did cross mine recently. I came face to face with the thought that someday, death will separate me from my husband and family. One of us inevitably will lose the other.
The first one to die will be spared this deepest of griefs. But eventually we will both be washed into the great sea of lives lived and died.
Grief is not an “if.” It’s a “when.” Someday, I will grieve for someone I love. Or they will grieve for me.
These sobering thoughts have been my constant companions for the past several weeks. They have only intensified over time, until I felt I had to get them all out on my computer, if only to sort through them and see what sense I could make of them.
During the same time period, much of my research has focused on others’ experience with grief.
Funny thing is, this was quite unintentional. I kept stumbling across books and articles on death and loss while looking for other things. They could not have fallen into my lap any easier if I had been searching for them.
I’d like to share some of what I’ve read with you. At first I narrowed it down to three writers who all shared the crucible of grief. Then, to keep this blog post at a reasonable length, I narrowed it down to one.
This writer came to his Christian faith as an adult. I mention this because it gives him a perspective I myself don’t have, having been born and raised in a Christian home.
It’s not always easy to keep one’s faith, especially in the throes of loss. I picked this writer because he deliberately chose the road of faith. And after encountering heartache and pain, he kept to the same road.
In doing so, he never veered into shallow platitudes or religious banalities. Instead, like Jacob wrestling with the Almighty himself, his writings record an intensely personal struggle with God and grief with great honesty and integrity.
C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed
C. S. Lewis was a 20th century British scholar who held academic positions in English Literature at Oxford University and later, Cambridge University.
He spent most of his early life as a good atheist. He converted to Christianity as a young adult and became, using his own words, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis married late in life. His wife was a divorced mother of two, Helen Joy Davidman.
At the time of their marriage, they knew that Joy was dying. Breast cancer had metastasized to her bones; the doctors had already warned her that time was short. She enjoyed a three-year remission, then the cancer claimed her life.
Lewis was not un-acquainted with grief, having lost his mother as a boy. Still, Joy’s death hit him hard. He kept a journal of his grief, from which I’ve taken the title of this post: A Grief Observed:
I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape…not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But it isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.”
I have always found Lewis’s writing particularly candid and clear-eyed. His journal pre-dates the first psychological model of the seven stages of grief by almost a decade. Yet he describes its “circular,” unpredictable nature with the precision of any psychologist.
In A Grief Observed, Lewis also described a crisis of faith. He felt his desperate cries for comfort fell on deaf ears; he called it a “locked door.”
I think many of us know exactly what he means.
I’ve found similar descriptions of “locked doors” in the writing of other theologians, but also scientists, poets, and philosophers.
It’s the seemingly unsolvable problem of pain.
It’s the dead end that you or I or anyone who has suffered loss have probably reached, the inescapable conclusion that to live in this world is to suffer, and that to love others is to suffer more, because we will also suffer in their suffering.
We all seem to reach this dead end – Lewis’s “locked door” – sooner or later. It seems to me, then, that the difference between one person’s grief and another’s happens not so much before reaching this dead end, but after.
Some only turn backward, replaying the memories of their loved one’s life and looking for purpose, meaning, and connection.
Others do the same, but then turn forward, believing that the trail of life must somehow continue. These would include believers in a higher power, one who holds answers to the seemingly unsolvable questions on this side.
The struggle for those straining forward is different from those who have turned backward. Many, like Lewis, wrestle with God when he seems to withhold important answers.
Think about it: the number one question most of us have in the face of pain and loss is: “WHY?” We want, more than anything, for God to answer the “why” of loss, grief, and pain.
But the answer seems elusive. Many accuse God of cruelty in withholding answers. Lewis went so far as to accuse him of taking brutal pleasure in human pain. He called God “the great vivisectionist,” a scientist who cuts us open and then leaves us to suffer, bleed, and die.
This inevitably touches on other questions that believers struggle with: who God is, his relationship to mankind, and the nature of our faith in him. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. And actually, Lewis never got clear answers either.
For C.S. Lewis, the resolution came not in finding answers, but in changing his view of the questions:
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
After his crisis of faith, this is where Lewis landed. He chose to believe that what does not make sense to us here will make perfect sense on the other side. That God does not withhold answers out of cruelty, but because it would be like explaining calculus to a kindergartener.
Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask–half our great theological and metaphysical problems–are like that.”
Lewis believed that perhaps the moment after death is a great awakening, a hand-smack-to-the-forehead moment: “Oh, of course. Now I understand what it all meant.”
Poem by Henry Van Dyke:
I am standing upon the seashore. A
ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me – not in her.
And, just at the moment when
someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying…
 Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. 29.
 Lewis, C.S. (1961). A Grief Observed. 34.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.