When your 21-year-old son dies of cancer and you are the vicar, how do you carry on?
It is three months since Tom died. I sit in our bay window, staring blankly at the garden. I am seizing up. Maybe I will just sit here and not move or talk to anyone, ever again. The phone goes. It is Michael. He says: 'Get your butt in the car, Hargrave, we're playing golf.' Michael is a no-nonsense, great mate. He doesn't wait to be invited. He doesn't worry about what to say. He isn't touchy-feely. He just insists we play golf, which we do, once, twice, sometimes three times a week.
I think the golf saves me from becoming clinically depressed. For a long time, I say very little. I am shattered, broken. I used to think of myself as emotionally resilient, tough, but not any more. The deep well of need in so many people's lives on this council estate parish, where I am vicar, overwhelms me. And on top of that, rather than feeling that we've had our bad luck and everything from here on in will be fine, I feel more vulnerable than ever, wondering what might happen to our other children.
And what can I believe, now, about this God who utterly failed to answer my most desperate prayers? At first, I thought the bottom line was St Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 13: 'Love never ends.' I think of Tom and the deep, aching, heart-wrenching love I feel for him. Surely, such a love can never be extinguished, even by death, can it? But now I am not so sure. What if love does end? What if, as Richard Dawkins says, there is no God and everything ends with death? If so, why carry on? Why ever get up from my chair in the window?
After Tom's death, we watch a programme called The Gathering Storm. It is about Churchill in the inter-war years, when he felt powerless and suffered depression – his 'Black Dog'. His wife appeals to his reserves of courage with the phrase: 'KBO my dear. KBO.' 'Keep b****g on.' It is all we can do. My wife, Annie, and I start to say it to each other: 'KBO my dear.' But actually, there is something vital in it. I am not sure what I believe just now but, even if there were no God, the values of the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the way of life which loves neighbour and stranger above self, which is committed to working for justice, for peace, for the powerless, for love and generosity to triumph over evil and greed – these things are surely worth fighting for, worth living for, whether God exists or not?
So, I put what I believe, which seems to vary each time I get out of bed, to one side, and instead I keep on in the cause of the gospel, which is, simply, a better way to live. KBO with urgency, because, as Tom's death reminds me, 'life's too short'.
No longer able to cope with the emotional demands of the council estate, people I have loved for the past 10 years, I ask the bishop about changing jobs. He suggests I apply for the Canon Missioner's job at Ely cathedral. I am reluctant. I've always thought of cathedrals as hotbeds of privilege, elitism and establishment. But, to please him, I apply and, to my amazement I get the job.
For years, every Sunday, I have said the creed: 'I believe in the Communion of the Saints.' But it never meant much to me, until now. There is, in the cathedral, an almost tangible sense of being surrounded by the communion of the saints, people who have prayed and struggled and suffered here, in almost uninterrupted line, for over 1,300 years – and still do. Despite my fragile state, I feel their strength. 'Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses' says the book of Hebrews 'let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus...' (Hebrews 12:1,2).
Michael and I are playing golf one day when he asks: 'Alan, does it help to know that Tom is in God's loving arms and that, one day, you'll see him again?' I was not in a good place. I said: 'Actually Michael, I don't even know if there are any loving arms of God – and I certainly have no assurance that I'll ever see Tom again.' Michael stops, turns to me and says: 'Oh Alan, don't worry about that! I believe passionately that God exists and that Tom is in his loving arms. And I am certain that you will see Tom again. And If you can't believe that at the moment, don't worry, I'll believe it for you.'
What sweet relief! What deliverance from the individualism of our age. Not to have to believe everything for myself! To be part of the communion of saints, past and present, who surround us, support us and pray for us; who sit with us, play golf with us and bring us food; who stand with us, stand for us; who hold us up when we are fallen and cannot stand upright ourselves. The saints who even believe for me, as I struggle with myself, with God, until that day when the sky clears, the light shines, and the wounded, risen Christ becomes real to me, once more.
Some of the above article is extracted from Alan Hargrave's book 'One for Sorrow', SPCK, 2017.