C.S. Lewis and the Five Stages of Grief

Seth Troutt / August 9, 2017
cs lewis, grief, psalms

**This is Part 3 of a 5 part series on grief and loving those who are in mourning. Read part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5.**


Grief turns out to be not a state but a process. Grief is like a winding road where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. C.S. Lewis

When we, or the people in our lives, experience loss what should we expect the grieving process to feel like? How can we empathize with our friends and family who disoriented by their experience of brokenness? One of the ways we can learn to grieve and love more honestly and healthily is by learning from case studies of mature followers of Jesus who have experienced significant brokenness. A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’ journal from the ten days after his wife passed away and it is a gift to the Church. It is not a theological reflection, it is simply him making notes about what he is experiencing as he processes through the pain of loss.

Similarly, Christians can learn from trends that is, ways in which many persons tend to experience their grief. The Five Stages of Grief is a helpful summary of what often happens to people as they process through grief. No two people experience grief the same and there isn’t even necessarily a “right order” in which people must go through these stages – they are not a prescription. However, the Five Stages do serve as a helpful description and, in my experience, give a vocabulary to much of what people deal with internally as they walk down the winding road that is grief. Ordinarily, the closer someone is to the deceased the longer it takes them to go through the five stages.

If you are experiencing grief, hopefully these Five Stages will serve as a helpful tool for building self-awareness. If you aren’t presently dealing with the pain of loss, hopefully these Five Stages will help you empathize with others.

Here, I have taken some key quotes from C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and placed them alongside the Five Stages of grief as an example of what healthy and mature Christians might experience when processing through their grief.

1. Shock/Denial

The shock phase has to do with disbelief and terror. Entering into the grieving process is terrifying and painful. If we can deny the reality, we can avoid the pain. It is scary to move forward. In many ways, we can’t move forward.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. — CS Lewis

2. Anger

The anger phase has to do with blame. Often, it is easier to be mad than to be sad. This is ____’s fault. This is God’s fault. If this is how God treats us, then whats the point anyway?

Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. — CS Lewis

What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? — CS Lewis

3. Depression

The depression phase has to do with feelings of hopelessness. I will always be sad. Things will always be this way. Things will never be the same. This is both deep sadness over the loss of the person and the loss of your future together with that person. I will miss out on ______. I always hoped I would get to see _____.

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. — CS Lewis

You tell me, ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. But I know this is impossible. 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. On any view whatever, to say, ‘She is dead,’ is to say, ‘All that is gone.’ It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.’ — CS Lewis

4. Bargaining

Bargaining has to do with wanting to control and negotiate the future. We make promises to God and others that we believe will prevent us experiencing pain this again in the future. Next time I’ll take them to a different doctor. Next time I’ll impose a more-strict curfew. We also start to evaluate how we handled the experience of grief, thinking, “perhaps next time, it won’t hurt this bad if I ____.” There is a glimmer of acceptance here, but the illusion of control remains.

I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. — CS Lewis

5. Acceptance

Acceptance has to do with concluding and moving on. We come to grips with the reality that there is no “going back to normal” rather, there is only a “new normal.” This does not mean the pain is over, if anything, it might mean the most profound pain begins. C.S. Lewis compares death to amputation – the loss of a loved one is like the loss of a limb.

Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. — CS Lewis

Even when you accept the new reality, you have to learn how to walk again. Yet, when we are able to see what God now has for us, we again begin to see beauty in the world.

Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. And I’d had a very tiring but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder night’s sleep; and after ten days of low-hung grey skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned her least, I remembered her best.

— CS Lewis

Conclusion

Understanding the grieving process takes time, prayer, and experience. We must be patient with ourselves as we grieve as there are no “right” feelings and no “right” timeline. We must do everything we can to pray as we go, even when it is absolutely frustrating, praying honestly to our good Father, who “knows us far better than we know ourselves” (Romans 8:27, MSG) and his “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 ESV).

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