The most arresting image on my Facebook feed this week was a photo of a friend’s nine-year-old son. He plays for Marrickville Cricket Club’s MCC Saggers. The youngster was walking out to bat in his Saturday morning match, wearing a black armband for the first time. His team, along with others all across the country, observed a minute’s silence before the match began. Many laid their bats along the pitch in a gesture of respect.
The death of cricketer Phil Hughes has shocked our nation and plunged us into public mourning unlike anything I can ever remember seeing. Flags at NSW public buildings and at Lord’s cricket ground in London are flying at half mast. Premier Mike Baird has announced a state funeral. The first Test against India, due to begin on December 4th, has been postponed. His hometown memorial will be broadcast live across the nation.
Phil Hughes was not supposed to die.
Hughes was just over two years my junior, and he was a personal favourite cricketer. I really believe he had the makings of a magnificent Test player. I count myself among a band of Phil Hughes loyalists who have been known to rant to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the selectors who again and again seemed to pass him over in selection. The national selectors are surely better cricketing minds than this armchair cricket tragic; yet it always seemed as though Hughes was destined for a greatness he never quite had the opportunity to fulfill.
The public outpouring of grief seems to have eclipsed even that of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who died just weeks ago. Why has Hughes’ death affected us – why has it affected me – in such a profound way?
The difference, I think, is this: Phil Hughes was not supposed to die.
Death is a very real threat, and it has no respect for hopes or promises. It is always lurking, poised to rob futures from those it takes and of those it leaves behind. It bears no explanation, no reason, no purpose; only questions. The death of a man who was not supposed to die reminds us that we, and those we love are not immune from the same fate.
When a former Prime Minister dies there is grief, but also a sense of celebration in recognition of promise fulfilled. In contrast, we sense that Hughes was robbed of that chance. His death is tragic because it seems like such a waste. “Three-score years and ten,” the Bible says (Psalm 90:10): young, fit men like him are not supposed to die. Cricketers are not supposed to die; the game is hardly regarded to be a deadly sport. Hardest of all, Hughes was a man with so much promise, destined for greatness. Our grief wells up because we sense that he was not supposed to die.
This sense reveals a truth we rarely face. Death is a very real threat, and it has no respect for hopes or promises. It is always lurking, poised to rob futures from those it takes and of those it leaves behind. It bears no explanation, no reason, no purpose; only questions. The death of a man who was not supposed to die reminds us that we, and those we love are not immune from the same fate. At moments like this we understand why the Bible calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
We might know how [he died], but we still ask why, because the feeling of injustice remains: he wasn’t supposed to die.
There are three ways in which we typically deal with this knowledge. First, we seek to explain. I’ve resorted to this in recent days. I came across an article explaining the rarity of Hughes’ fatal injury. Just as I was posting it on Facebook, it struck me: the explanation made no difference. Understanding the medical and mechanical causes of death did nothing to soothe the sense of tragedy. We might know how, but we still ask why, because the feeling of injustice remains: he wasn’t supposed to die.
A second typical response is simply to pretend it doesn’t matter. That’s life. It’s sad, but it happens: move on. This runs up against the same problem as explanation: it just doesn’t fit with our experience.
A third typical response is despair. Despair overwhelms us with the sense that death – especially the death of someone who was not supposed to die – makes a mockery of our hopes, of our promises, of our futures. To pursue them seems futile in the face of such tragedy.
None of these responses does justice to what we’re feeling: that these events are unjust; that Phillip Hughes was not supposed to die.
Our public grief is an entirely appropriate and healthy response: we are lamenting, facing the reality of the world as it really is.
The Christian tradition provides another response: lament. The Bible is full of laments. One example is Psalm 22, famously invoked by Jesus himself as he was being crucified: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). That Psalm, like many biblical laments, moves from a description of present suffering and the threat of death to a steadfast appeal to the historical faithfulness of God, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Other laments end still in the depths, as in the final verse of Psalm 88: “Darkness is my only friend.” Lament isn’t always hopeful. Sometimes it is right simply to sit with the pain of the moment, honestly acknowledging its reality.
Laments do not seek to explain, neither to ignore; but nor do they despair. Rather, they are honest: they acknowledge the reality of death and suffering, yet they don’t allow them to overwhelm. The reason a lament can be hopeful is because to lament is to be honest about the pain of life in this world.
Phil Hughes was not supposed to die. Our public grief is an entirely appropriate and healthy response: we are lamenting, facing the reality of the world as it really is. The threat of death stands over us every day, a death that has no respect for hope, for promise, for the future.
And so the Christian hope is that death, the final enemy, has been defeated through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. We long to share in the bodily resurrection he pioneered (Philippians 3:21), to live as bodies no longer subject to decay (1 Corinthians 15:42–44), in a world where there is no sorrow, no tears, and no pain (Revelation 21). That hope only makes sense when we’re honest about how much this world hurts.
My friend’s son’s first black armband will likely not be his last. He will grieve again, for the sad reality is that there are stories like Hughes’ every day. Their reality is not to be explained away, diminished, or despaired. We ought instead to lament, being honest about our pain. Such honesty means we do not lose hope. For Jesus was supposed to die, so that death may no longer reign (Romans 5:17).
Our nation’s outpouring of grief is healthy. It’s right to lament in honest acknowledgement of what we sense to be true: Phil Hughes was not supposed to die.
Richard R. Glover is a student at Moore Theological College in Newtown. He enjoys reading, writing, music, and (watching) cricket. He Tweets via @richardrglover and blogs sporadically at richardrglover.wordpress.com.