On Friday 17th January, my 16-year-old nephew, Dan, went to a party with some friends. He took his first ever ecstasy tablet and collapsed. After a weekend on life support, he died on Monday 20th. We (including my parents, both in their 80s) were with him as he slipped away, and it took forever, and it was totally heart-wrenching.
Dan’s funeral was on Tuesday. Before a memorial service in a packed church in the afternoon, we held a private family burial in the morning. The weather was atrocious – strong wind and heavy rain. It seemed to match the occasion, as if nature was saying that the whole thing was just wrong. Was it rain or the angry tears of God? I thought of a line from Gerd Theissen’s ‘The Shadow Of The Galilean’, where the narrator, watching Jesus die, says, “If the sun could see and feel as we do, it would go dark for grief; if the earth could feel, it would quake with anger.” The world is wrong and not as it should be and not as God would have it be … yet. We seemed to be standing there forever, but how can you ever walk away from something like this?
The afternoon’s service was much less bleak as friends and family paid tribute to Dan and we thanked God for him. There was nothing bleak about Dan. He lived life to the full, with an inventive mind, a keen sense of humour and huge character. Some have said “What a waste”. And in a sense it is utterly tragic that his life was cut short at 16 years. But Dan didn’t waste his life. I think I wasted opportunities to know him better and be a better uncle, but having said that, I know that what is, is; and what has been, has been. Every day is precious, whether you’re 96 or 16, and each person puts worth into each day for those they love and maybe those further afield. But no one lives for ever … yet.
My sister and my brother-in-law have been amazingly gracious and positive. They have lost their son, but they have refused to blame anyone for his death. They have engaged graciously with the intrusion of the media to put a positive message out to other young people. They have started up a charity to promote that message – The Daniel Spargo Mabbs Foundation. There’s a link to it in this blog’s list of interesting links.
Dan knew all about drugs. He was clever and articulate, from a caring home, with loving, educated parents who took an active interest in his activities. He did, however, have an adventurous nature, like many teenage boys. He got to experiment with drugs once. Drugs like ecstasy, MDMA, and other so-called recreational drugs cause many deaths (30 from ecstasy in the UK in 2013). Most people who use them don’t react and don’t die as a result, but some do. There was nothing remotely recreational about a 16-year-old boy with umpteen tubes sticking out of him and machines working his lungs and kidneys, lying unconscious, slowly dying. People have argued that maybe he took the tablet in the wrong way, or too quickly, or whatever. The fact remains that if he hadn’t taken it at all he would still be alive. We live in an addicted culture where we tend to excuse our addictions and the various substances and habits to which we are addicted; in which young people are dying because of drugs or alcohol. These things wreck lives and I don’t care what you think about prohibition and moderation – my lovely nephew is buried under a pile of mud in a Croydon cemetery because of one little tablet.
I hadn’t meant this to turn angry. I think I’m angry, at least in part, because I recognise my own addictive behaviours and my failure to reach out and build better relationships and contribute to a stronger community in which we value and care for others. Blame is one of our culture’s addictions. In reality we are all part of a system, part of a culture, in which we are all to blame but in which the hope for change and cure lies with all of us, too. We (me included) need to choose life and love over death.
May Dan rest in peace and rise in glory.