C.S. Lewis: A Friend in Grief | Part One – A (Surprising) Biographical Sketch

C.s.lewis3For those touched by grief, a faithful friend might be someone who knows pain themselves, one who is empathetic, respectful, non-anxious, and flexible. About a year ago, I wondered if C.S. Lewis might be, through his life and literature, one such friend. After all, here is a man whose own lived experience was dramatically shaped by oscillations of profound joy and intense suffering.

And so, for a course at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to explore the friendship of C.S. Lewis by studying his life, and especially his two major publications on grief and theodicy: “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed.” The two part series that follows will be an adaptation of this project with the hope that I will remember, and perhaps the reader will discover an unexpected, imperfect, and welcome friend.

You can read part two of this series, “Lewis the Author,” here.

Part 1: Lewis and Loss: A (Surprising) Biographical Sketch

I once heard the musician Damien Rice remark that it is the happiest songwriters who pen the emotionally saddest tunes and that it’s the seemingly happiest folks who you need to worry about. This adage might also be applicable to C.S. Lewis, the author of the beloved children’s classics about the fanciful world of Narnia.

csl_wall_paperAs with any friend, those who join others in the process of bereavement will find it difficult—though perhaps not impossible—journey with others through the (preverbal) valley of the shadow of death. Henri Nouwen has brilliantly noticed that that true ministry for hurting people is born precisely through one’s own wounds rather than despite of them or by escaping them.[1] Indeed, the emotional, psychological, and physical suffering in Lewis’s own life brings a certain amount of credibility to his understanding of suffering. It therefore might be helpful to note major events in Lewis’s life that, in their tragedy, shaped Lewis to be a friend in grief.

Though the legacy of C.S. Lewis would eventually be marked by intimate experiences of loss and suffering, the story of Jack’s life begins rather happily. Lewis’s parents, Albert James and Florence Augusta, raised Lewis and his older brother Warren in a home characterized by Christianity, education, and lots of books to stimulate Jack’s impressive imagination and intellect.[2] It was in these early years (1898-1908) that Lewis first developed an intrinsic preoccupation with a sort of “Joy” that he could only later describe as somehow encompassing both pleasure and grief. This joy, an “unsatisfied desire” which he found himself “falling out of…and wishing I were back in it”, was a reality that Lewis considered to be “in a sense the central story of my life.”[3] Such joy however provided a point of sharp contrast for a young C.S. Lewis who would experience great loss just before his tenth birthday with the death of his mother, Flora. Of the loss of joy that accompanied the death of his mother, Lewis writes: “all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”[4]

Flora (Hamilton) Lewis’s drawn-out and cancerous death in august of 1908 compelled Lewis to understand suffering and loss are not fixed only to the death of a loved one, but that the passing of a life—the gradual deconstruction of familial familiarity, stability, routine and roles—can become systemically divisive as it unfolds. This holistic pain of watching his mother die is later expressed vividly in the story of the young boy Digory in The Magician’s Nephew where the illness of his mother drastically influences the boy’s identity and mission throughout the book. The loss of Lewis’s mother also had a great impact on Lewis’s relationship with his father. Lewis writes of death’s impact on himself and Warren: “It divided us from our father as well as our mother.”[5] This familial suffering was further felt by Lewis as he was sent to Wynyard School, (called “Belsen” in Lewis’s autobiography) in England. It was at Wynyard that he would spend two years confined to the authority of a brutally abusive—some biographers have concluded, sadistic—headmaster.[6]

Lewis, his brother Warren, and his Father.

C.S. “Jack” Lewis, his brother Warren, and his father, Albert.

As Lewis moved from Wynyard School, to Campbell College, to Cherbourg House, and to Malvern College, he began to again find his sense of joy in poetry, mythology, and “Northernness.” Lewis also found a fitting mentor in W.T. Kirkpatrick who would help sharpen Lewis’s continually budding intellect. Yet, the uprooted and wounded Lewis would continue to reflect on his experiences with suffering and loss. Angry at a God who would not save his mother, Lewis would lose also his faith in God, becoming an admitted atheist. After spending a year in Oxford (1916) Lewis would be sent off to WWI were he would suffer psychologically, seeing friends taken away by the horror of war. Lewis would also suffer physically, contracting trench fever and receiving shrapnel wounds.[7] These events however would bring Lewis out of the war and return him to Oxford where he could continue his career as an academic.

The strain between Lewis and his father continued and even deepened as Lewis’s became increasing successful at Oxford.[8] Shortly after arriving at Oxford, Lewis began to develop a new family system with his provision for, and perhaps romantic relationship with a much older Mrs. Moore. She being the mother of Lewis’s fallen friend and solder only fed familial tension with his father. It was not until Albert Lewis was found to have cancer in 1929 that he and his son began to mend their bonds. And it was the death of Albert that coincided with Lewis’s conversion, first to theism in 1929 and then to Christianity in 1931.[9]

On par with the life altering loss of his mother was the events that surrounded the death of Lewis’s wife, Joy (Davidman Gresham). Though Jack and Joy would marry in part to sort out her legal status (she was a Canadian risking deportation), their love would indeed become one of mutual romance, providing Lewis again with a season of immense joy. As Lewis recounted one particular letter: “It’s funny having at 59 the sort of happiness most men have in their twenties … ‘Thou hast kept the good wine till now.’”[10] Succumbing to cancer in 1960, the death of Joy (an esteemed poet and writer herself) would linger with C.S. Lewis for the rest of his life, shaping to the core his understanding of self and God. This dramatic event of grief-induced theological and intrapersonal upheaval is expressed powerfully in Lewis’s, A Grief Observed.

Lewis and his wife, Joy.

Lewis and his wife Joy, who died of cancer in 1940.

C.S. Lewis is therefore not only to be a friend in grief because he has experienced suffering; his potential lies ultimately in his ability to mature and grow through his experiences of loss. Such maturation is most visibly seen in his writings on suffering and theology, The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. In these works, Lewis’s Christianity guides his writing and he provides readers with contrasting and converging guidance through issues of theodicy and reflection, evil and love, faith and doubt.

Be sure to check out part two of this series, in which Lewis’s primary publications on suffering and grief, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and excerpts from The Chronicles of Narnia will be explored in relation to his own life story.

-Michael Wiltshire


[1] Though this idea runs through the majority of Nouwen’s writing, it is most intentionally devolved in his work: Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: DoubleDay), 1979.

[2] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 3-4.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harvest, 1955), 17.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Hooper, C.S. Lewis, 6-7.

[7] Ibid., 7-11.

[8] Ibid. 13.

[9] Ibid. 13-14.

[10] Lewis as quoted in: Lyle Dorsett, “Helen Joy Davidman (Mrs. C.S. Lewis) 1915-1960,” Knowing & Doing: C.S. Lewis Institute.

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