Cancer & Creativity: CS Lewis on Grief

With Eastside Arts’ CS Lewis Festival coming up in November, we look at Lewis’s influential work, A Grief Observed, written in the aftermath of the passing of his wife, Joy Davidman. Married in their sixties, the couple had only three years together before Davidman succumbed to breast cancer.

An exploration of personal faith and bereavement, A Grief Observed sees Lewis questioning his own beliefs, struggling to square his Christianity with his suffering. Lewis first published the work in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a year after Davidman’s death. It was republished in 1963 under Lewis’s own name after his own passing. In the book, Davidman is referred to as ‘H.’, meaning Helen, Davidman’s rarely used first name.


Below, we list ten key quotes from A Grief Observed, culled from the notes that Lewis made in four separate manuscript books to record his journey of anguish and recovery.

To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking. ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.’

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter’. There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.

From the way I’ve been talking anyone would think that H’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself. Her point of view seems to have dropped out of sight… I must think more about H. and less about myself.

If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination.

I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person.

[T]he past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death.

The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness…  If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.


He remembers her better because he has partly got over it… passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them.

[B]ereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer.

How far have I got? Just as far, I think, as a widower of another sort who would stop, leaning on his spade, and say in answer to our inquiry, ‘Thank ‘ee. Mustn’t grumble. I do miss her something dreadful. But they say these things are sent to try us.’ We have come to the same point; he with his spade, and I, who am not now much good at digging, with my own instrument.


The CS Lewis Festival is on from 18-22 November. Download the full programme guide from Eastside Arts.

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