The Way Time Heals

Hilary Mantel revisits C.S. Lewis’s classic meditation on the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, noticing the way it refuses to elide the complexities of loss:

Mechanical efficacy is attributed to the passage of time, but those in mourning know how time doubles and deceives. And though, in Britain, self-restraint is said to have vanished with Princess Diana, sometimes it seems the world still expects the bereaved person to “move on” briskly, and meanwhile behave in a way that does not embarrass the rest of us. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death, she writes of our dread of self-pity: Lewis too experienced this. We would rather be harsh to ourselves, harsher than a stranger would be, than be accused of “wallowing”, of “dwelling on it”.

But where else can the bereft person dwell, except in his grief? He is like a vagrant, carrying with him the package of tribulation that is all he owns. As Lewis says, “So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.” It is hard to spot signs of recovery, hard to evaluate them. Lewis asks: “Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?” The first acute agony cannot last, but the sufferer dreads what will replace it. For Lewis, a lightening of the heart produces, paradoxically, a more vivid impression of his dead wife than he could conjure when he was in a pit of despair. Recovery can seem like a betrayal. Passionately, you desire a way back to the lost object, but the only possible road, the road to life, leads away.