The Transformational Death of a Son
By Fiona Spargo-Mabbs
God can make the worst of experiences grow such good, if by his grace we work alongside him.
On Friday 17 January 2014, my sixteen-year-old son, Dan, came home from school and asked if he could go to a party that evening with friends. He told me all about it. I felt uneasy, I asked some more; he reassured me. I agreed, and off he went. But he never came home.
The police officer that knocked on our door in the early hours told me Dan had been found unconscious outside an illegal rave on the other side of London. It was thought that he’d taken ecstasy. He was in intensive care. There had never been a party.
My husband, Tim, and I raced across London to the hospital. As we waited and watched those next two long days at Dan’s bedside, I heard words of hope and words of despair as life as I knew it dissolved beneath me. And I prayed, and prayed, and prayed.
Sixteen years earlier—from the moment I knew there was another tiny new being coming to join us, and through all those years of hopes and fears a parent has for their growing children—I’d prayed for the life of my boy with all of that deepest, widest, wildest of loves you never imagined was humanly possible before you have a child. I’d prayed he’d live life in all its fullness, that he’d know the love of God, that God would keep him safe.
As we watched and prayed in the Liver Intensive Care room, that deepest of valleys—and with the shadow of death hovering, God was more present than I had ever known before. And on that last morning, as the machines that had kept Dan alive were calmly and gently switched off, as we listened to the beeps that had measured his life grow slower, in those most awful, darkest of moments, there was the most incredible peace. I handed my poor, precious, broken boy into the strong, gentle arms of God, who took him, and held him, and I knew he would be safe forever.
My encounter with God in that moment was utterly transformative. As we had watched and prayed through every hour of Dan’s last days, I’d had such a strong sense that we were part of a battle much bigger than ourselves. As Dan died, I knew the God of life and love was raging, that this boy of ours had been so broken—that many young lives were being damaged and lost to drugs. If someone like Dan could come to such harm, then this was a risk to anyone’s child.
Dan was my bright, big-hearted, funny, chatty younger son. Everyone loved Dan. You couldn’t help yourself. He just loved being friends with everyone and anyone—every social group, every age group, wherever he went. He’d been overwhelmingly voted Prom King six months earlier. Everyone loved Dan. And nobody had him down as being at risk of coming to harm from drugs. But he did.
The passionate commitment Tim and I felt right from the start, to do all we could to prevent any harm of any sort happening to anyone else’s child, was borne the moment Dan died. That intense drive arose from our love for Dan, and from the love of God for all the lives that God creates and holds so precious. Lives God doesn’t want damaged by drugs. It was never meant to be this way, and one day it will be different but, in the meantime, we had work to do.
That work began the morning after Dan died when the first reporter knocked on our door. That was to be the first knock of many. We decided we needed to talk, to warn other parents: “This stuff is close to all our doors. It’s dangerous. It got Dan, make sure it doesn’t get your child.” Not a very nuanced message at this stage, but visceral and overwhelming. The Police Press Bureau took the knocks and reporters in hand, and we talked and talked and talked. And then, just eight days after Dan died, we set up our drugs education charity, the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation. And so began this partnership with God.
It was the night before our first big television interview, four weeks and one day after Dan died. It was then, while I was feeling totally lost and helpless—and terrified—that I first remember registering that sense of calling, of vocation. It felt terribly heavy and unwanted. I thought of Moses in Exodus 3 and the weight of God’s calling on him, and his sense of utter unworthiness. Not to compare myself with Moses, of course, but this was such important work, and who was I to do it? What did I have to bring to this battlefield? I was a person broken in pieces.
But I knew without a doubt this was what I was to do. I knew this was God’s work, and I had to trust that, somehow, if God wanted me to do this work, God would give me what I needed. And somehow, God has.
When it came to setting up a drugs education charity, I didn’t in fact come empty-handed. In many ways, it felt as though my career path had unintentionally prepared me perfectly to take this particular helm. God takes what we have and transforms it into something that’s more than we could have imagined, more than we could ever have managed sailing solo. What I had was education. And a story.
I was an English teacher. I’d been working in adult education for many years, much of that with parents and in partnership with local schools. By the time Dan died, I was managing a big department of around fifty teachers, coordinators, and managers, and working broadly across education in the borough. I also had a lead strategic role nationally in my specialism of working with vulnerable families.
So I knew lots about teaching and learning, working with schools, designing a creative curriculum, strategic planning, networking, and developing partnerships. What I didn’t know enough about was drugs or drugs education. But I knew how to learn, and I was unnaturally motivated. I therefore spent a year reading and researching and talking to everyone I could, discovering what works and what doesn’t—and where the (huge!) gaps were. There was so little in the way of resources and support available to schools—and drugs education is absolutely vital for all young people.
So that’s what we’ve done, and are doing, and will continue to do. Doors have opened right, left, and center, and we’ve walked on through wherever we could. The charity has grown and grown, across London, across the UK—and around the world. This global growth has arisen, in part, through the play we commissioned that tells Dan’s story: I Love You, Mum—I Promise I Won’t Die, by Mark Wheeller. These were Dan’s last words to me, his mum, his regular joke before he went out, said with his regular hug and kiss. We have also created workshops, lesson resources, parents’ sessions, professional training, youth ambassadors, a verbatim play, a book for parents, and so much more. I’ve spoken to thousands of parents and professionals, tens of thousands of teenagers—and many more reporters over the years. In God’s strength and for God’s sake and the sakes of all our children. For the sake of Dan.
From that first moment of speaking out, sitting in our living room surrounded by reporters, the verse that came to us was John 15:8, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit . . .” That verse stuck.
An enormous sycamore tree overshadowed Dan’s grave. The tree Zacchaeus climbed and that led to his encounter with Jesus. These little spinning seeds have gained enormous significance for Tim and me. They fly around, land up in some surprising places, and push up shoots where people least expect them, growing trees that will shower the world around them with yet more sycamore seeds.
Every time we spoke in those earliest of days, and every time I speak all these years on, my prayer is that God would take my words, take my life, and make it bear much fruit. We knew God could take the very worst of all worst-case scenarios and make it work for good. And we’ve witnessed God doing just that, working tirelessly to make this terrible thing do as much good as it can. And the amazing grace of God is that he lets me work alongside him. Bearing much fruit. Saving young lives.
A Collect on the occasion of the funeral of my son, by Tim Spargo-Mabbs
All loving God,
Who watched in agony as your Son died under the weight of evil,
We, who must tread the slow, desert path, watering it only, it seems, with our tears,
Ask for grace that we fall not into despair.
May we find that, in your own good time,
You have transformed our tears into rivers of living water,
And that the desert blooms again with the life of your kingdom;
In the name of Jesus, who overcame evil with good,
Hatred with love and, ultimately, death with life. Amen.
Question: Is there anything so bad that God can’t make it do good work?
Fiona Spargo-Mabbsis the director and founder of drugs education charity the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, which she set up in 2014 with her husband Tim in response to the death of their son, Dan, having taken ecstasy. Her book for parents, I Wish I’d Known, blends Dan’s story with a wealth of information and practical advice. See www.dsmfoundation.org.uk.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.