Justin Brierley meets the Archbishop of Canterbury
Simon Thomas: Grief, unanswered prayer and life after death
When his wife died just three days after being diagnosed with leukaemia, Simon Thomas had to tell the couple’s eight-year-old son. Here, he reflects on how the reassurance that death is not the end has enabled him to endure the hardest of trials
Simon Thomas seemingly had it all. A successful and enviable career in TV, a loving family and a strong Christian faith. Then at quarter to six on Friday 24 November 2017, his world fell apart.
Thomas was “utterly convinced” that his wife, Gemma, would be OK when she was first taken ill. But just three days after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, the 40-year-old passed away.
Simon was devastated. His prayers for healing had gone unanswered, and he was now faced with breaking the news to the couple’s eight-year-old son, Ethan. As the days, weeks and months rolled by, Thomas would process much of his grief in public; writing raw and honest blogs and producing heartbreaking YouTube videos, often about how he was trying his best to support his son. His story resonated with many, myself included. I was the same age as Ethan when I lost my own mum. Dealing with death isn’t something most of us plan for.
Despite being criticised for his openness on social media, the TV star is unrepentant. He believes we all need to get better at talking about our struggles, even though it might be easier to “put your fingers in your ears and pretend it hasn’t happened”.
Thomas’ own childhood was “idyllic”, and landing a job presenting Blue Peter was a dream come true. But even before Gemma’s death he’d had to bat away a number of unexpected and unwelcome curveballs. The couple had struggled to conceive. Then there was the miscarriage after IVF treatment for baby number two, not to mention his two bouts of depression leading to panic attacks. But throughout the battles, his faith stayed strong.
A vicar’s son, Thomas says faith was never forced on him; rather, he was able to work things out for himself. He recounts vividly the moment God became real to him as a child following his own near-death experience in which his mother urged him to move away from a tree that moments later was struck by lightning. Gill Thomas would later say she believed the voice of God told her he needed to move.
Thomas often found ways to shine a light on his beliefs while working on Blue Peter. When he moved to Sky Sports those opportunities dried up, but his social media presence helped make others aware of his strong Christian faith. The story of how that faith was rocked following Gemma’s death is detailed in his new book, Love, Interrupted: Navigating grief one day at a time (Trigger), a moving and often brutal account of loss and bereavement. Fellow broadcaster Dan Walker, in his foreword, warns readers to be careful where they open the book due to the emotional rollercoaster that awaits.
The opening words of your book are about that moment when your world fell apart. Even after Gemma was diagnosed you were sure she’d be OK. What gave you that certainty?
I think part of the belief came out of shock; I didn’t understand what was going on. At that point we just knew it was a blood cancer, a leukaemia of some sort. And, actually, the reality is, for far, far more people than ever before, leukaemia is not a death sentence. So you’re thinking: “We’ll probably be OK.” And I think there’s an element in which faith-wise you’re thinking: “God will pull us through this”, so there were enough reasons for me to think “we’ll be OK”, and I kept saying that to Gemma.
How do you reflect back on your prayers from that time? Some would look at it and say: “You prayed, and your prayers weren’t answered.”
It’s exactly that – my prayers were not answered; they weren’t – well, not in the way I was hoping, anyway. I did find it hard in the days and weeks afterwards, when people would say: “We’ll never find out this side of heaven why this happened.” And I’d actually say to them: “Do you know, I’m not even sure I’ll find out in heaven.” Because I think, based on what I’ve read about heaven in the Bible, it’s going to be so beyond our wildest dreams and imagination– when you get there, none of that will matter. So maybe I’ll never find out, and I had to let go of the search for the “why?”. I will never know the answer. So instead of getting caught up in that, I had to find a reason to live again.
I too learned to become at ease with the question “why?” but I still struggle with the idea of some people being healed and others not.
I don’t think you will ever get an answer to that question. I remember a very prominent Christian figure in the 1980s – David Watson. He had an amazing ministry and was a big favourite of my dad and lots of people at our church. He got cancer and died. Here’s an amazing Christian leader who is doing some incredible things; he’s got armies of Christians praying for him. But he died and his ministry ended. You go: “I don’t get it, God. I don’t get why you’ve not intervened here, and yet you have with other people.”
The husband of one of my closest friends has just come through lung cancer. Lots of people were praying for him. I wanted him to get better –of course I did. I wanted it more than anything, but also, it’s hard, because of course when it was announced that he’d come through, you look at the Facebook posts and all the comments – “God is good”, “what an amazing God we have” – and you think: “He wasn’t so amazing for us; he’s answered your prayers, but he did not answer mine.” I think if I got too caught up in that, and the anger and the bitterness, eventually it would lead me to a place where I’d go: “I’m done with this faith lark, because it’s just not fair.” I just had to accept that, even with faith, life can still be very unfair. And there are going to be questions that we will probably never find out the answer to. And I’ve found I just have to let go of it.
You’ve described experiencing a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). What did that feel like?
I’d never really understood what that verse meant. Is it just being in a happy place in life? But I understood for the first time what it actually means, and it’s finding God’s peace in the most chaotic and scary places.
I remember going to the crematorium. The emotion of the day just hit me, and I remember collapsing on the gravel. And when Gemma’s hearse arrived, I was just shouting this blood-curdling: “NO!”, which echoed through the gloom that was descending. I remember a group of friends gathering around me and pulling me back to my feet, and I remember – I think it was Carl Beech, actually, who was praying from the back in his gruff voice: “God, hold this man right now – hold their family as we go through the next few minutes, and that your peace would descend on this place.” We go into the room at the crematorium, it is everything you’ve thought it would be – deeply depressing, cold, just a horrible place. And as they bring Gemma’s coffin in, it’s feeling even more horrible. And then we play this worship song which talks about “you bring light to the darkness,” and “you bring hope”. And this incredible, tangible peace descended on that room. So much so that a friend of mine who doesn’t really have much of a faith and who was stood next to a guy called Dan – who I know doesn’t have a particularly good singing voice – said: “I’m listening to this guy singing, and he sounds angelic.” She said: “I felt a peace that I’ve never, ever felt before.” And I felt it as well, so much so that as I left that room and people were going up to the coffin and touching it, I just said: “Look, guys, sorry to break crematorium decorum, but she’s not here – she’s in heaven. I’m off.” And I just said: “Bye, darl,” and left with a smile on my face. I’m not going to say everything after that was easy – it was deeply, deeply difficult – but in that most hopeless of places, this incredible peace descended that even had an impact on people who wouldn’t say they have a faith. That’s the peace that “passes all understanding”.
You talk in the book about a moment some weeks on where you are at your lowest but then vividly feel the presence of Jesus weeping beside you. Tell us more about that.
It has been interesting; through this process I’ve gained an understanding of the Trinity and how it works in a way I never really had before. I came to realise that God the Father was the one who I could take all my anger to because the God I follow is big enough to take me ranting at him. God the Holy Spirit is the one who came alongside us in the crematorium that day and brought that peace that “passes all understanding”.
In terms of God the Son – I had gone to sit by a river and was thinking: “There is no joy left.” At that point I wanted to end it. As that thought came into my head, I actually felt this presence alongside me, and it felt like I could almost see Jesus sitting next to me. He wasn’t saying anything, but he was weeping tears with me. That’s God the Son – he’s the one who gets alongside the broken-hearted, just as he did in the Bible. Just knowing that he understood gave me the strength to get back on my feet and walk back into the house and say: “Somehow, I’m going to find a way through this.”
What would the grief process have looked like had you not had faith?
In some ways it would have been less complicated because if I take faith out of the equation – then those questions about “Where were you, God, on that Friday?” don’t exist. But I can’t imagine what it must be like to see your boy lose his mum, and to know there is no hope of him ever seeing her again; there is no hope of life after all this. If I take God out of the equation, a lot of that hope dies. Tell me more about your relationship with Ethan. He means everything to me. Our relationship was always really, really good. But it’s now remarkable – I describe him as my son, but also my best friend. We’re like mates – I love spending time with him. Because he was our only child we always tried to make the most of things. When he had a speaking part in the school nativity – we went to every single performance. Some parents were like: “Oh, you’re here again?!”, but we wanted to rinse it out. And it makes me now, as a dad on my own, want to absolutely rinse out every moment I’ve got with him. I think because of that, it makes the relationship so much closer, because so much in life I do not take for granted now.
Since Gemma died, he has had some amazing opportunities. The FA asked him to be a mascot for an England match. In the car on the way home he said: “Dad, I had such an amazing night tonight, I’m so sad that Mummy’s not here to see it.” And you’ll know something of this, having lost your mum when you were the same age, you get to a stage in life where you have to accept, hard though it is, that life can still be enjoyed...You can still laugh...and you will laugh again. And life is still there to be savoured, to be enjoyed, to be loved, to be cherished. But you have to accept that when those life milestones come – maybe it’s the day he graduates or gets married –alongside joy in his life, there will always be that pain that Mum’s not there.
I remember crying on my wedding day, you know, best day of my life...
You want to see your mum looking on...
Yes, and that doesn’t leave you. It was 20 years since she died when my own baby was born – I wanted her to see her grandson...
You want to be handing the baby over for the first grandma cuddle...I just say to Ethan – and I say to others going through this – don’t let the pain rob you of the joy. Just learn, difficult as it is to accept, that the two can coexist.
There’s a theme throughout the book of searching for light in the darkness. It sounds simple, but when you’re in the darkness, finding that light can be really difficult...
So what’s your advice to someone searching for that light?
I recently got put in touch with someone in the USA (by Russell Brand, randomly) whose wife had just died. He was on the verge of giving up, and I kept saying to him: “Mate, however dark it feels right now – however utterly hopeless it is right now – there is a way through. You won’t see it now, but there is – you’ve just got to hang on, even if it’s by one single fingernail. I remember in the early days, people who knew what they were talking about saying to me: “It will get easier one day.” When you’re in the midst of it, it feels like an affront: “How dare you suggest this is going to get easier?” But of course they’re right, it does. And as time goes on, I just try to encourage people going through this, just hang on in there.
Your book is full of lessons to help us better support those who are grieving. Practical help seemed to be a big thing for you.
I think the thing we struggle with when we’re trying to support people going through grief is, we’re trying to search for answers, we’re trying to search for the right words, but sometimes it’s as simple as just being practical, which so many of my friends were. A group of people at the church provided meals for the first few weeks, so I never had to worry about cooking. Practical help is so important...if you are finding it difficult to know how to get alongside someone who has just lost someone– you don’t feel equipped in terms of emotional maturity or being able to express yourself – well, express it in other ways. Just saying: “Is there anything I can do for you today?” is really important.
In your book you write of your infuriation when people would say: “There are no words.” What should we say to those grieving?
I think you have to recognise that, however difficult it is, when you say something like: “There are no words”, or you say nothing, you’re essentially not acknowledging what has happened. I think sometimes we want to find something really deep and meaningful to say, but just saying: “I’m so sorry for what’s happened; for your loss; to hear about Gemma” – is everything. It’s a simple act of reaching out, and you are acknowledging what has happened.
I found it really difficult at the Christian conference New Wine last year. I’d be bumping into some old friends who I don’t see apart from at New Wine...just the usual yearly catch-up. But in nine out of ten of those conversations – I did count – the people I spoke to never acknowledged what had happened.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with Church.
You’ve called me out!
There have been various times in your life where you’ve found it difficult to sit through a service. What can the Church learn from your story about how they can better serve people who are going through tough times?
I think we have to acknowledge that any given church service can’t be all things to all people. If you’re doing a sermon on marriage, there are going to be people there who are going to find it very difficult to hear– you can’t tailor everything to suit where everybody is at, because then you would end up saying nothing. When people have their lives stolen from them – like your mum had her life stolen – it shakes people’s faith and it interrupts cosy Christianity; it’s a stark reminder that we are not protected from any of this stuff. And I think sometimes Christians shy away from talking about it because it’s challenging their faith. But it’s also holding a mirror up to them that says: “This could have been you.” I think we’ve got to get better at being able to talk to each other, particularly guys in the church – talking about our fears; talking about the things we struggle with. I’m not advocating that we just go on about how difficult life is, but it’s giving people the opportunity. When life is tough, church should be the place where they can say: “I am finding life tough right now.” But too often, it’s the place where they feel they can’t say that, because they’re breaking through and interrupting cosy church.
What does the future hold?
I describe it as a new chapter. Chapter one ended in a way that none of us wanted, and none of us expected– but that chapter has closed, and I know that Gemma would want us to move on. Bizarre though this might sound to some people, I feel excited, because it’s not the future any of us would have chosen, but we’ve been given this new chapter, and now the only question is: “What are you going to do? What kind of story are you going to write?” I have to write a great story for my boy if I can. Life is there to be cherished; we only get one shot at this life on earth. I don’t want to go to heaven any time soon. I want to enjoy and savour life. I believe that we’ll look back in years to come, and, however painful that period was, and however painful at times Ethan’s life has been, we will look back and go: “You know what, we made something really good out of something really hard.”
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on Saturday 21 September or download The Profile podcast