The death of a loved one, even if expected, even as a relief to suffering, still brings grief to those left behind. Even if the loved one was aged, still, the absence of the person, once alive, now gone, strikes our heart; for this is the way of all flesh. However, if the death comes unexpectedly, or if the death comes to a young person, how much greater the shock adds to the grief! Such is the case with Blessed John Henry Newman, who lost his younger sister, Mary, unexpectedly at the age of 19. His poem, “Consolations in Bereavement,” is the result. Her death especially affected Newman because he was particularly fond of Mary. When he was an old man, Newman would still become emotional at her memory. As is the case with his other keen emotions, Blessed Newman best expressed his feelings in verse. In recalling the devastating blow of this too early death, Newman teaches us how to find consolation in such situations. The first stanza recalls Mary’s quick death, along with the uplifting insight that though her path led her quickly from life, it led her also quickly to God. Only part of this poem will be read aloud, though it appears fully in print.
Consolations in Bereavement
DEATH was full urgent with thee, Sister dear,
And startling in his speed;—
Brief pain, then languor till thy end came near—
Such was the path decreed,
The hurried road
To lead thy soul from earth to thine own God’s
In the second stanza, Newman finds comfort in Mary’s quick passing because she did not have to suffer or waste away in distress or pain.
Death wrought with thee, sweet maid, impatiently:—
Yet merciful the haste
That baffles sickness;—dearest, thou didst die,
Thou wast not made to taste
Decline’s slow-wasting charm, or fever’s fierce
In the third stanza, Newman’s tone changes ever so slightly, and he becomes hopeful, remembering the truth of a Christian death. He compliments his sister’s goodness, saying that Christ found her worthy of a sudden death; Christ had no need to give her warning, for she was prepared to meet Him.
Death came unheralded:—but it was well;
For so thy Saviour bore
Kind witness, thou wast meet at once to dwell
On His eternal shore;
All warning spared,
For none He gives where hearts are for prompt change
In the following two verses, Newman beautifully reminds us of God’s providence; Newman finds consolation in the reality that there was nothing anyone could have done for Mary, for the death was so fast. Because of this, there could be no remorse for inaction.
Death wrought in mystery; both complaint and cure
To human skill unknown:—
God put aside all means, to make us sure
It was His deed alone;
Lest we should lay
Reproach on our poor selves, that thou wast caught
Death urged as scant of time:—lest, Sister dear,
We many a lingering day
Had sicken’d with alternate hope and fear,
The ague of delay;
Watching each spark
Of promise quench’d in turn, till all our sky was
The final two verses show us a very beautiful and intimate side to Newman’s grief. Because of her youth and beauty, because of her rapid death, his memory of Mary was always of her in her “loveliness.” This memory of his sister, forever young, forever his happy darling, would freshen him throughout the year when he was weary.
Death came and went:—that so thy image might
Our yearning hearts possess,
Associate with all pleasant thoughts and bright,
With youth and loveliness;
Sorrow can claim,
Mary, nor lot nor part in thy soft soothing name.
Joy of sad hearts, and light of downcast eyes!
Dearest thou art enshrined
In all thy fragrance in our memories;
For we must ever find
Bare thought of thee
Freshen this weary life, while weary life shall be. Oxford. April, 1828.
Though Newman was still young when he wrote this poem, we know from letters written throughout his life that he rarely ceased thinking of Mary, and found comfort in the belief that she was with the saints in heaven. He felt her presence, especially on her birthday. And this is consolation for us! Death is not the end, but a beginning for the Christian. Death reminds us of the transitory nature of our time on earth, be it long or short; we must not assume that time is granted to us or to those around us because of the miracles of modern medicine, or because of youth.
Newman’s one regret is that he felt he never told Mary how much he loved her and how much she meant to him. Let us learn from Newman’s regret! Have you told your loved ones how much you love them? Have you let small misunderstandings keep you from making amends with those you love? And we must also remember our own mortality; we must strive to be prepared for the Lord each day. Let us rejoice in our earthly loves, giving thanks that Christ has forever opened wide the gates of heaven.
(for more on Newman’s love for his sister, Mary, see: “Epiphany-Eve: A Birthday Offering” on this website.)