ON FINISHING Victor Lee Austin’s book Losing Susan, I feel as though I have been on a journey with someone who, while at first a stranger, by journey’s end has become something of a soul companion.
The story is told with an almost monastic simplicity. It has journal-like qualities, as we are afforded a peek into the ordinary lives of a priest and his family. The ordinariness of family life is punctuated by the festivals of the church calendar, which his wife, Susan, whom he described as being “in love with God”, ensured were celebrated with joyful, homegrown rituals.
This beautiful book is as accessible as it is theologically sophisticated. In it, Victor Austin chronicles Susan’s brain tumour, and the resulting progressive brain injury that led to her death 19 years later, aged 58. At each stage, he speaks with a rare authenticity about God’s being the third person in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly bears witness to an assurance that a “threefold cord is not quickly broken”.
Austin makes no attempt to sanitise suffering. Instead, he describes in detail the daily burdens, frustrations, and indignities for Susan, and for him as her carer, each stage of her decline adding to a heart-breaking litany of loss. It is extraordinary that he can do so with such transparency and yet without trace of either bitterness or self-pity.
Unsurprisingly, there were times when it felt impossible for them to pray; and yet Victor and Susan held on to God, who, though often silent, was never absent. “I have known God is real, but his love for me, it seems, has been an awful love.”
Hope emanates from the pages of this book. Perhaps it stems from the aspect of it which unsettles me most; that the author simply accepts, without challenge, that God gave and then took away his beloved.
In inhabiting this place of acceptance so fully, Austin bears quiet testimony to a faith that, instead of being diminished by loss, is strangely and wonderfully enlarged. I ended my journey with this book reflecting on love and the power that it has to permeate and transform our suffering.
The Revd Dorothy Moore Brooks is Chaplaincy Deputy Team Leader of the Great Ormond Street NHS Foundation Trust, London.
Losing Susan: Brain disease, the priest’s wife, and the God who gives and takes away
Victor Lee Austin
Brazos Press £11
Church Times Bookshop £9.90