very human story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In his 2016 book, Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away, Anglican priest and author Victor Lee Austin does an outstanding job of telling the story of his relationship with his wife, Susan, and her journey through nearly two decades of chronic illness. He tells their story in a way that both captivates the reader and points the reader beyond the story of this specific marriage relationship to the Author of that story, with some unusual and tragic twists and turns. As is true with the story of every human relationship, Austin points out in the preface that there is a third “strange character (who) is silent on nearly every page, although he is never absent.
The book contains just three chapters: “The Beginning,” “The Middle,” and “The End.”
“The Beginning” is the story of how they met. Austin tells how they determined that they were meant to be together. It chronicles the early years of their marriage and ministry. The reader is introduced to Susan as a loving, compassionate, creative woman with a passion for God that spills over into everything that she says, does, and writes. Every married couple—especially every married couple in the ministry—will be able to see elements of their own stories in the lives of Victor and Susan.
“The Middle” describes the couple's long, arduous journey through Susan's health problems, which began unexpectedly at a relatively young age. This illness would eventually command much of their time and attention through the final two decades of their marriage. The reader witnesses how Victor does his absolute best to stay true to his marriage vows, “In sickness and in health,” while also sharing moments of frustration and anger.
“The End” describes how Susan's death, though preceded by a long decline, was in some ways still unexpected. Every reader who has lost a loved one—in particular, a spouse—due to illness, will surely connect with many of the thoughts and emotions Austin shares in this section of the book.
One of the best qualities of this book is its brutal honesty. As Austin describes his journey of caring for his wife from the first stages of discovery until her death, he shares with striking candor his fears, his doubts, his uncertainties, and his wrestling with God. We see that he often second guesses himself saying, “If only . . . .” Every caregiver has experienced this.
In fact, the whole book is a refreshing read for anyone who has cared for a loved one during a long disease process.The reader will see that his or her experience, while certainly unique to that relationship, is, at the same time, a shared journey.
Others, including people of faith, have experienced the questions and struggles involved in the processes of grief and loss. Austin has the courage within the pages of this book to openly wrestle with two questions all of God's people, whether they are willing to acknowledge it or not, wrestle with at times in their lives: “Where is God in the suffering?” and “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
One of the unique qualities about this book is the way Austin weaves together his own story with the story of Scripture. He writes at length about the difficult passages of what he calls “the second-best book in the Bible,” the Song of Songs. Near the end of the book, he writes about his perspective on “the best book in the Bible,” the Book of Job.
Human love, suffering, Christ's love for His Church, the Advent calendar, brain disease, and many other topics relevant to the Christian experience are beautifully tied together in this book.
Austin also highlights the importance of the presence of both the faith community and caring members of the medical community in providing the highest possible quality of life for those suffering with chronic and terminal illnesses. This is an important reminder to everyone who witnesses the suffering of a fellow believer.
Is Losing Susan a theology book? Is it a book containing biblical commentary and explanation of church tradition? Or, is this a book chronicling a minister's vocation and a couple's journey through “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”?
The answer to all of these questions is, “Yes.” While Austin's journey is unique, the reader will inevitably see his or her life's journey reflected in its pages in one way or another.