How faith can help us face up to the terrible loss of a loved one

Thinking Anew: When Paul Newman said that it doesn’t get better, he was right. Death means someone once treasured is no longer present

Paul Newman  lost his 28-year-old son Allan in 1978 following an accidental overdose of a tranquiliser and alcohol. Photograph: Frank Miller

Paul Newman lost his 28-year-old son Allan in 1978 following an accidental overdose of a tranquiliser and alcohol. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

According to Benjamin Disraeli, those who have known real grief seldom seem sad. That, however, was not the experience of actor Paul Newman who lost his 28-year-old son Allan in 1978 following an accidental overdose of a tranquiliser and alcohol. Losing a child is a terrible thing and for a long time, Paul Newman refused to discuss his loss with anyone until one day when an interviewer asked him if things had got better with the passing of time. He thought for a moment and said: “It doesn’t get better; it just gets different.”

In tomorrow’s Old Testament reading we meet a grieving father from another age. King David’s third son, Absalom, attempted to seize his father’s throne. David sent an army to put down the rebellion but gave instructions that his son be spared. Despite this, he is killed and his father’s says: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.” The battle-hardened strongman is broken.

It doesn’t get better

When Paul Newman said it doesn’t get better, he was right. Death means that someone once treasured is no longer present; a grim reality must be faced. Returning to any kind of normality is difficult, as the author Catherine Marshall discovered in 1949 when her husband Peter, a Presbyterian minister and chaplain to the United States Senate, died suddenly, leaving her alone to care for their young son. In her book Meeting God at Every Turn she writes candidly about learning to live again as a single person. “Even five or six years after Peter’s death I found that my journey through the valley was still a running battle with self-pity . . . At a dinner party I would find myself the only single person there. Always I knew that my hostess had not meant to be thoughtless. It is hard for anyone who has known only an unbroken family to imagine how this particular situation makes the single person feel. Try as I might to overcome it, I would find that being in the presence of couples threw my aloneness into sharper perspective.”

In the epistle reading we are told how we should relate to one another within the Christian community: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . and be kind to one another, tender-hearted forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you . . . live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

But this counsel is not just about person-to-person relations; generous and treasured relationships reflect the unconditional love that God is. This complete self-giving of God to each one of us has eternal significance and so, we dare to hope, to believe, that we and our loved ones, including those who have died, are never beyond the reach of that love.

Wept for Lazarus

St Paul was convinced of that when he wrote “that neither death nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This conviction does not rest on some human wish-list or vain hope, but on the promise of God made very clear in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is at the very heart of what the church must share with the world.

Knowing this does not diminish Paul Newman’s or anyone else’s grief; the loss of someone deeply loved doesn’t get better and Christianity acknowledges that; Jesus after all wept for Lazarus. But faith informs our losses and these words from a prayer in the Church of Ireland Burial Office encourage us “to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience, not sorrowing as those without hope but in thankful remembrance of (God’s) mercy in the past and waiting for a joyful reunion in heaven.”

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