Sometimes bravery is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain.
—Veronica Roth, Allegiant, p.509

We always remember the moments when reading changed us. Books that nestled deep, becoming companions for years into decades. Words received from someone who owned scars from pain, suffering, loss.

In my early 20’s, my divorce came just months after the wedding, and the intensity of grief starved my soul even as I starved my body to externalize the pain. The breaking came in winter, and I spent the spring and summer waiting for a thaw that never appeared. I did the work you’re supposed to do when grieving. But the heavy lifting threatened to crack what remained—an exoskeleton of the younger me.

When I wouldn’t—couldn’t—talk to another therapist or family member or friend, I picked up books. “Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world” (Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air [New York: Random House, 2016], p.26).

A handful of titles stand out to me for their sharp reflection that created mental space for moments of insight, emotion, and purpose. A decade or two later and I still remember how it felt the first time I read the words I’ll always carry with me.

Face the Darkness
I met one of these books that grief-filled summer, when I sat on the front porch and alternated between reading and staring into the surrounding forest with unfocused eyes. Jerry Sittser understood. His book A Grace Disguised expressed the grief I was too tired to deal with. Jerry dared me to choose to enter the darkness: “The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. . . . It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us” (Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, expanded ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004], 45).

Instead of running or numbing, he laid down the gauntlet. I’d lost my husband. He’d lost his wife (and his mother and daughter). Pain infiltrated to the marrow and he claimed that the only way out was through the darkness.

Author Sheldon VanAuken also lost his wife, and he confirmed there was no other path: “I was having to bear the unbearable. If I must bear it, though, I would bear it—find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it. . . I would not run away from grief” (Sheldon VanAuken, Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph [New York: HarperOne, 1977], 187). In my brittle body and colorless soul I was in no shape to run anywhere, but in solidarity with Jerry and Sheldon, I turned my face into the dark.

When Does This End?
While I carved about some semblance of soul work during those years, eventually I let my pain lead me into a destructive cycle of mindless indifference and dangerous choices. Another marriage framed in trauma. Another divorce, this one involving a child. My 20’s stumbled past, and I wondered if I’d ever be through the darkness. Grief, regret, despair were the only constants.

Curled on my side under sheets and blankets, I read to escape as the night became early morning. I couldn’t stop tapping my Kindle’s screen—despite an awareness that my 3-year-old son would be awake and calling for me in a few hours. But I kept reading.

I can count on one hand the times I’ve cried that hard over a book. When Veronica Roth wrote the conclusion of Allegiant Tris faces death, and her simple words were another breaking for me.

“Am I done yet?” (Allegient, p. 475). The unexpected question slipped past defenses, the right words at a vulnerable time. Tris asked permission to finally step out of the pain into death—and presumably peace. And I wanted to be her. I needed to be done. But before I could sink into daydreaming of death, Tris’s sweetheart demanded my attention as he faced the monster of grief.

You Will, You Must
My pain and his spoke the same dialect. But I didn’t realize how much our paths paralleled until the very end of the book, when he held the opportunity to erase all his memories, effectively jettisoning his grief. He describes how he was “desperate for the relief it offers, the protection from the pain of every memory clawing inside me like an animal” (Allegiant, p. 507).

Imagine the lure of making it all go away. Even if you later learn the facts of an event, your sensory memories and emotional connections have been severed. Emptiness trumps pain any day. I wish. Spoiler alert: he chose to live with the memories and his grief. Extra spoiler alert: losing your memories doesn’t erase pain; it just shifts which edge of the blade is held to your throat. More than a decade ago I developed amnesia, and while I no longer cry for the trauma I’ve forgotten, every time I see a photo from the years of my son’s life that I’ve lost, it’s a physical blow to my chest.

C.S. Lewis is my greatest teacher in grief. I return again and again to The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, though the latter is so raw, there are times I can barely read it. Lewis knew pain, and he didn’t put suffering in a theological box. Instead he left room for it to expand to its full reality and showed how even at its greatest, God’s reach was infinitely more.

“I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. . . . If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul-making,’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain [1940; repr., New York: MacMilllan Publishing Co., 1978], p.108).

At the end of the day, when darkness is still present and pain still burns, the words Lewis wrote to Sheldon never fail to give me an extra tug through the day. “You have been treated with a severe mercy. . . you must go on” (C. S. Lewis, letter to Sheldon VanAuken, undated, in VanAuken, Severe Mercy, p. 210). We must go on, further up and further in (C.S. Lewis, The Complete Chronicles of Narnia [1965; repr., New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998], p. 523). There is no other path.

Paul Kalinithi was a husband, father, and brain surgeon who wrote When Breath Becomes Air—published after his death at age 37. I’ve kept one of his quotes close for years, but I didn’t notice the parallel to C. S. Lewis’s words—also written to a husband facing grief—until now. “I woke up in pain, facing another day. . . . I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago. . . . I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’” (When Breath Becomes Air, p. 149).

Samuel Beckett gave Paul Kalinithi the strength to start another day. C. S. Lewis wrote the challenge Sheldon VanAuken needed to hear, who in turn wrote a book that changed my life. They are part of that exclusive cohort who created books that reset strength and spark the next generation of writers. Because of them, we can choose to face the darkness and say aloud, “I must go on. I will go on.”

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