Liberating Losses

"Poi si tornò all’eterna fontana" -"Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain."- From Paradise, Canto 31, where Dante described Beatrice looking at him for the last time in Paradise: "So I prayed; and as distant as she was, she smiled and gazed at me. Then she turned back to the Eternal Fountain." C. S. Lewis - A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed was first published in 1961 and concerns the death of C. S. Lewis's wife, the American-born poet Joy Davidman (whom he refers to as 'H') after just three years of marriage. It probes the "mad midnight moments" of Lewis's mourning and loss, moments in which he questioned what he had previously believed about life and death, marriage, and even God. Indecision and self-pity assailed Lewis. "We are under the harrow and can't escape," he writes. "I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace." Writing A Grief Observed as "a defense against total collapse, a safety valve," he came to recognize that "bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love."

Lewis' experience is what one usually understands to be the normal or anticipated reaction to the death of a close loved one. "What pitiable cant to say,'She will live forever in my memory!' Live? That is exactly what she won't do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them. Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What's left? A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost. All mockeries or horrors. Three more ways of spelling the word dead. It was H. I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest."

Liberating Losses agrees that when someone dies, those left behind are expected to grieve. But, as taboo as it is to admit, not every death brings great sadness. Labeled "nontraditional grief response" by therapists and counselors, a positive reaction following a death is becoming more common, especially now that drugs and medical treatments keep people alive much longer than they or their families might wish. Sometimes we are relieved that our loved one is no longer suffering; at the other end of the spectrum, a death might finally free us of an abusive or unhappy relationship. In either case, the cultural expectation for sadness, loneliness, and despair only adds to the guilt and conflict felt by many "relieved grievers."

Authors Jennifer Elison and Chris McGonigle have lived through their own "liberating losses." Illuminating for the first time a reaction that many deem insensitive, inappropriate, or strange, Ellison and McGonigle share their own and others' stories, thoughtful clinical analysis, and pragmatic counsel. Wise, compassionate, and groundbreaking, Liberating Losses expands the traditional definition of grief and, in so doing, generously validates the feelings that so many feel obliged to hide. One reviewer wrote:

“I found this book to be extraordinary in its insights, generous in the honesty of its authors and unique in the permission it offers so many troubled grievers to feel what others may regard as "unacceptable" feelings. In my work as a hospice bereavement counselor, I've certainly encountered a number of widows and widowers who were consumed with guilt because they felt so liberated and free instead of sorrowful and lonely (as their families and friends expected them to feel) when their spouses died.”

What have you read or experienced on the issue of grief?

Posted April 07, 2007


Andrew Wilson said...

I am very familiar with Lewis’ books and I read A Grief Observed many years ago some time after the death of my first wife in a traffic accident. We were living in the States at the time.

Rereading it again I still have many of the same reactions as he described. I remember his comment that the death of someone loved is like an amputation in that the person is gone yet their presence is still felt. That was what I felt most, although my wife was gone she was still here and in quiet moments I could even here her talking with me in my mind. That has been a great comfort to me and although the grief has subsided over the years the conversation continues!

I haven’t read Liberating Losses yet so I can’t comment on it but from the reviews on Amazon I think I can see that one’s reaction to a loss might differ quite a bit depending on the circumstances. Sudden death or death of a young person, however, must always be heartbreaking.


Duncan Clemens said...

Andy, I have been reading this blog for some time and your comment stimulated me to make my first post. I lost my wife to pneumonia of all things. She was a bit run down and had been doing a lot of work over the Christmas period despite the fact that she was feeling strangely weak. When she finally went to the doctor he diagnosed pneumonia and put her into hospital as a precaution where she died two days later. I was very angry, mostly with myself as I feel I should have insisted she went to the doctor sooner.

I know as a Christian what it is like to question one’s faith as Lewis did. I agree with him that religion did not bring me any consolation at that time though now I realize that it was my faith and my understanding of forgiveness that allowed me later to realize that I had to forgive myself if I was ever going to heal.

I read Liberating Losses and it describes a side of death that I had never really thought about as it does not relate to my own situation. However, I believe that I know people whose experience might have been closer to that described in this book.


Joan Ferguson said...

Andy and Duncan: It’s very unusual to find men who are able to talk about these things so openly and so sensitively. Thank you both for these comments. Joan

Helen Wright said...

I second that!

Helen Wright

Megan Zamprelli said...

My husband died after a 10 year struggle with prostate cancer. Both of us knew how it would eventually end and we basically just forgot about the disease when he wasn’t having treatment and we went on about enjoying our lives.

I think that both books had something useful to say in my case. Andy, I have the same experience as you. I can converse with my husband when I go to bed and hear his voice quite clearly. Strangely I can not form a mental image of him. I can picture him easily in a photograph but I have a lot of difficulty in picturing him as he was in real life though my best memories of him that I have are how he looked in the last couple of weeks and months of his life. All the rest is gone. Lewis seemed to have had the same experience so I think I’m normal!

In the other book there is no grieving in the traditional sense and indeed that was my experience though in a different way. After my husband died I felt a certain peace for both him and me that all of the chemo etc was over with. But I would say although there was no acute grief there has been a chronic grief that has continued with time. I tend to cry for a moment or two every couple of days or so when I remember something we shared together or when I realize that he is not here to share some new event in our childrens’ lives. Thankfully the children seem not to notice his absence any longer so youth does have its advantages!

I have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.

Thank you,


Helen Wright said...


I had never come across the term “anticipatory grieving” before and this was a new insight to me. I think I understand it from the comment about your own personal experience.

I can see that in Jennifer’s case in the book there was no grieving of any sort because of the failure of the marriage. In her case the death of her husband was no different maybe from that of a neighbor or even a relatively close friend. Maybe some sadness with respect to the death but no short or long term anguish about it.

Helen Wright

Anonymous said...

My spouse died of cancer and we knew when the end had come near. My reaction was a sense of relief in the short term for both of us. Now I suffer from loneliness but in a way I am happy too with this feeling because it reminds me daily of the loved we shared. There are certain things that can not be understood before they are experienced.

Both books are great!

Derek Bell said...

I found both books very interesting. My experience is that the topic is extremely difficult to discuss with a family facing the imminent death of a close family member and also after death has occurred.

One never knows what reaction the family will experience and this makes it difficult for care givers (nurses, doctors etc) and clergy unless there has been some long term relationship with such professionals.

I think both ends of the spectrum were well described in these books and I have already recommended both to several people that I think will benefit from them.

Thank you for a very interesting blog. I read it frequently and learn a lot but sometimes feel I don't have too much too add beyond what the others have said.

D. Bell

Michael N. Hull said...

In the book "Unholy Ghost" edited by Nell Casey several writers discuss their experiences with depression. I came across the following interesting thought which I have paraphrased a bit as I think it is applicable to the loss of a life partner.

Time passed, and slowly, as in any marriage, a third person, who was neither of us, began to join us in our marriage, a person smiling beneficently between us, with an invisible arm draped across our shoulders. It was a person whose identity participated in both our separate identities and was, without our intending it or knowing how it happened, our mutual creation, containing both genders, both pasts, both personalities - someone utterly trusted in whom we could see him or herself and the other, but could see neither one nor the other alone. This third person, whose identity feels more real that one's own, makes a marriage transcendent but also, when one partner dies makes life difficult, living on, as it must, for years after the marriage has ended, keeping husband, or wife, from knowing who they are alone, what they like and dislike independently of the other, and what their own secret stories were and are.


F McG said...

As a doctor, (retired), I have to say that in my particular branch of medicine, I was not involved (except in the early days) with dying patients. However I did quite often encounter bereaved parents, usually those who had lost severely handicapped children. My experience since retirement has unfortunately been of a more personal nature, and I must say this has perhaps taught me equally valuable lessons. Much of this has confirmed what I learnt in professional practice….namely that there is no formula for grieving. The factors involved are so varied and so, consequently is the process and most especially the expression of grief. The differences often lead to misunderstanding.

Watching a loved one suffer for months, or even years has a different effect than sudden loss. The physical fatigue involved in the former, and the shock caused by the latter may produce, at least initially a different reaction.

Just recently, I was closely involved with a dear friend who was dying with cancer (a late diagnosis). The final vigil which her family kept with her lasted much longer than expected. Inspite of her strong Christian faith, she simply did not seem to want to die.
When the end finally came, her family experienced huge relief, even, dare I say liberation. In no way would they want her back to suffer any more.
However, now a few weeks later, the sense of emptiness is creeping in. They have not yet recovered from the physical effects of that long period of watching and waiting. They do not have the energy to pick up the threads of their every day life, so they remember, and they ache, sometimes they laugh, and sometimes they cry.

The books quoted on this subject, and many others have a great deal to offer because, often they resonate with someone else’s experience and help them to realise that they are not alone.

Keep on sharing.

Megan Zamprelli said...

The doctor who was with my husband for 10 years was very upset at the end. I could just see it in his eyes and his whole buoyancy was gone.

He was a professional but over the period of the illness he had become a member of our family in our hearts. I'm sure doctors must struggle a lot with their own sense of grief particularly those who work in oncology.

Bless you!


Derek Bell said...

I think doctors probably have a harder time with these issues than clergy if only that the doctors have been trying to save the life or have been struggling to prolong it fruitfully.

I would be very interested in hearing a comment from a member of the clergy.

Any out there?

D. Bell