Grief is Vivisection to Those Left Behind

The Magic of Country Music

Country music is my go to workout playlist. Strong beats to just push myself. At times the lyrics break though with the undertow of grief. Raelynn was on and her song “Your Heart” struck an emotional chord.

“You think you know who you are
In somebody’s arms
But you don’t know
No, you don’t know
Yeah, you don’t know who you are

‘Til somebody breaks your heart”

Change the last line to “Til your heart is broken” That pretty much sums up where I am in this entire death and grief journey.

CS Lewis ‘A Grief Observed’

I recently picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read it within a few months of Donna’s death and I wanted to look for a passage that I have been quoting. It turns out misquoting, as I am want.

I regularly reference Lewis from this essay and his thoughts on seeing a couple and how he can’t help but think one of them well suffer the grief he is suffering. I was close but no cigar. The passage is this:

‘To some I’m worse than and embarrassment. I am a deaths’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.’

As I reread the essay and am struck by how brilliant Lewis is in finding the perfect language to describe grief and what is taking place within grief. If you are familiar with the essay and Lewis you also know this is his questioning of God and God’s grace. God is well above my pay grade but the analysis and experience of grief is not.

Science and Practice of Self-Compassion

Finally, I signed up for a course at the Tibet House “Science and Practice of Self-Compassion”. This course is based on Stanford Medical School’s compassion curriculum. The course is in June so my thoughts are from what I gleaned reading the course description. The course will:

“Using the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, meditation, lectures, readings, exercises, and class discussion, students learn to have a composed and compassionate attitude to the challenges of everyday life.”

The stated outcome of the course is:

“Every part of the class has been thoroughly researched. Research conducted on this course shows that it increases happiness and overall positive emotions, reduces stress and anxiety, enhances feelings of connection, decreases worry, and leads to a more caring, compassionate attitude toward oneself and others.”

We got country music, C.S. Lewis, and Self-Compassion. WTF! How is this going to work out?

Putting the Pieces Together

Raelynn’s lyrics reinforced the point I try to make with each post and podcast I’ve done on death, grief, and mourning, I see movement within me to a new understanding a new day to consider more. If you take a look at the post I did on Post Traumatic Growth this is the baseline for knowing who you are after trauma.

Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” gets a bit more complex and I fear I will end up entering Narnia of memories and analysis. Simply, Lewis begins questioning God and why this unthinkable pain was handed to him. His logic of analysis is clear and much of what he states and describes as he addresses this question of why and how could God have let this happen rings so true, been there done that. That discussion is better handled in a recent OP-ED piece in the NY Times “After Great Pain, Where is God?” written by Peter Whener.

For me it is less about God and more about Lewis’s descriptions of grief and his essay which is more a journal. He opens with grief feeling like fear or being drunk or denial and its gift of being laziness invoking. All these are true. At one point he describes God as a vivisectionist which is a powerful image.  Grief feels the same and I’m going to co-opt it, grieving is vivisection of those left behind.

As you progress though Lewis’s essay his descriptions become tighter and more focused. Here are some examples:

“It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down.”

“This is one of the things i’m afraid of. The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness?”

“Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea”?

Further on Lewis considers when the other one dies it is love cut short and if the dead also feels the pains of separation. “…and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of out experience of love.”

“…though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.”

Lewis continues speaking to his grief yet the subtleness of his observations as they unfold to revel a peace with the dead. This sense of peace is short lived and the crushing reality of grief. “They say ‘The coward dies many times’: so does the beloved.”

In the final notebook Lewis draws his grief and questioning of God’s will into a tighter circle and clearer insight. “When I say ‘intellect’ I include will. Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will pare excellence. What seemed to meet me was full of resolution.”


Lewis and I agree closure is indifference said pretty. Closure deny’s the poet from strapping himself to the tree during a storm so he can better write about it from within its driving rain and lightening. The deep and abiding search of ones self to understand death and grief is treacherous to one’s life. It is worth the journey. There are outcomes and knowledge that produces a deeper knowledge of our person in the present and not in the past memories.

Self compassion training is the third part of this exercise.The stated outcomes above at first blush seem all vanilla and daisy like ‘increases happiness and overall positive emotions’ etc. That is assuming I can focus enough to meditate knowing full well I have the attention span of a gnat. Further complicating this exercise is the reality that death and grief have been this horrible tearing of my soul. That being said it has shaped my heart and emotions like nothing before. I worry that this exercise in self compassion may be a dulling of my inner rage, fear, insanity, etc. Taking my drive to learn and grow will become a passive exercise. I fear being anesthetized. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I may take this course to see how to channel that which drives me in positive ways.

So a major trauma forces you ( if you are so inclined) to look within long and hard, opening all your receptors to the pain of memories of what was and what is. As you fathom and navigate these empty wells thirsting for meaning and peace an awareness builds not of closure but an opening of a new memory one built from the time in the desert. It becomes a moment where you consider harvesting new and future memories from the seeds of the past. I will hold on to my rage about death and grief and not try to tame it but shape it.