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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Losing Susan" (Victor Lee Austin)

TITLE: Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away
AUTHOR: Victor Lee Austin
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016, (160 pages).

Losing someone is painful. Watching a loved one deteriorate and suffer is beyond words. Yet, Episcopal Priest Victor Lee Austin had done not only that but to write this book journaling his experience while seeing his wife struggle with brain cancer and its after-effects. It is painful. It is truthful. It is also insightful.

Austin invites us to follow his journey from beginning to end. He shares about how he and his wife met at school, and how her Episcopalian background rubbed with his Presbyterian upbringing. They got to know each other through walking to and from Church. They soon got married, Austin at 22.5 years and Susan at 21 years of age. For fifteen years, they had that beautiful marriage until that fateful day when they discovered Susan's tumor. He shares about his family's levels of faith; that despite the regular issues with the faith of children of clergy, his children Michael and Emily did not lose their faith. Susan was a passionate writer. She also loves children. Austin has a way of describing her love for children.

The Middle section of the book is where the journey gets a lot more difficult and trying. With symptoms of headache and frequent moments of passing out, Susan was diagnosed with brain tumor. The family gets thrown off the regular routines and life takes on a whole new perspective. The part about praying that no longer makes sense is a profound description of mental trouble and spiritual anguish. On top of that, the radiation and chemotherapy throws the whole person off completely. Here, we read about Austin's personal pain and spiritual roadblocks. Where is God? Does He care? Why must God's people hurt so much? He grapples hard with the notion of evil. 1) The evil of wilful disobedience; 2) physical evil; 3) problem of free choice. Soon, Susan's condition curtailed her everyday decisions, one of which was the inability to go to her son's graduation ceremony. As Austin sees his wife deteriorate, he ponders frequently about faith and God.

The last days were difficult, to say the least. Austin discovers in a personal way what it means to be married in sickness and in health. He gets a glimpse of the tears shed by Jesus. He understands the tight connection between the community and the individual. In his romance with Susan, the Song of Solomon is a great book of the Bible. In the last days with his suffering wife, he finds solace in the Book of Job. Just reading the pages about the visits and travels to hospitals and the funeral planning is already gut-wrenching. For Austin and his family, it must have been worse.

Nobody would want to ever go through what the author and his family had went through. Yet, for some strange reason, they did. Ultimately, by sharing their stories, it is hoped that readers would be able to better understand families who had to deal with situations of cancer or other terminal diseases. It is one thing to talk about theology and the best Christian practices. When the reality hits close to home, facts and knowledge can be very meaningless. For matters of the heart can only be dealt with by God alone. The "Epilogue" is written by Susan before she died. She has eloquently titled the whole experience as plumbing the depths of God's love. Which reminds me that the love of God cannot be bounded. For love is beyond the joys and ecstasies of life. It includes and embraces the spectrum of human emotions both past, present, and future. Through it all, it is knowing that God has been walking with us all along that is most comforting.

I believe that being able to write down one's thoughts and emotions after a traumatic loss can be therapeutic in itself. Many like J. Todd Billings, Jerry Sittser, Kathryn Greene-McCreight, and even CS Lewis have all done that. Their works have benefited millions of people around the world over the decades. I pray that readers will not have to go through what Austin had gone through himself. Yet, our earthly future is never certain. We can never predict what would come at us. It could be better. It could be worse. We can only trust that God will always give us the strength to overcome.

The author is an Episcopal priest in the diocese of New York as well as a theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Brazos Press and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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