Image: Pannila Photography; L-R Courtney Maher, Annabel Wyatt (née Paul), Steph Frewin, Adela Davis, Emma Dunn. New College Ball, 2016.
The death of Steph Frewin left a gaping hole in the lives of those who knew and loved her. Emma Dunn shares her experience of losing a friend—a story of grief, but also of the hope they shared.
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On the night of 21st October 2017, Stephanie Frewin, a 22 year old New College resident, died unexpectedly, after a battle with leukemia. Her death was sudden and a devastating shock. Her friends and fellow collegians were left reeling as they tried to come to terms with the loss of such a selfless, strong, and beautiful woman. As the New College community wept together, we were confronted with the stark reality and finality of death.
In the weeks, months and years that have passed since Steph died, many from the New College Community continue to remember and miss her. It has been a great comfort to know that Steph had a strong faith in God as her saviour and is now with him. Steph’s deep convictions and confidence in her forgiveness and salvation through Christ greatly impacted the way she lived her life, but this wasn’t always the case.
Steph’s journey of coming to faith in Jesus is a testament to her thorough and deeply contemplative approach to learning and life. Throughout early high school, she had thought Christianity implausible, however she had a deep desire to know truth. In her last few years of high school, through conversations with her friend Catherine Priestley and time spent at the local youth group, Steph began to consider the claims of the Bible.
Steph’s battle with leukemia first began in 2015, six weeks after she had moved to Sydney from her hometown of Tooraweenah in Western NSW, to do a double degree in science and engineering. She began treatment, culminating in a stem cell transplant from her brother, Nick, at the end of the year. Throughout her treatment Steph’s optimism, determination and outward focus were clear to those who visited her. Just three months after the transplant, she returned to New College. Reflecting on her experiences at this time, Steph said she felt like someone had been looking after her.
When Steph returned to New College in 2016, she threw herself fully into college life and quickly became a loved and respected member of the community. It was in this time that she began to investigate Christianity with renewed vigour. She asked questions, carefully studied the Bible with those around her and read numerous books on its trustworthiness. Steph decided to place her trust in Jesus after attending the Campus Bible Study mid-year conference in July 2016. For many of Steph’s friends, one of the greatest joys of knowing her was seeing her come to know Jesus as her saviour.
Steph rejoiced in her newfound forgiveness and hope in Jesus, and set about sharing her joy with others. She became a determined evangelist, humbly and lovingly sharing the hope she had in Christ with many friends and family.
After nearly two years in remission, in September 2017, the leukemia returned. It was an awful blow, but Steph approached this new challenge with characteristic calm and resolve. She had a deep sense of peace and assurance in God in the days and weeks following her re-diagnosis. Although she didn’t understand God’s purpose fully or know what the future held, she was confident and secure in her knowledge that she was loved and forgiven by Jesus. Within three weeks of her diagnosis, Steph began a new type of treatment that allowed her to continue studying and living at college. She was determined to keep fighting the cancer and living each day to the full.
On the night of 21st October 2017, while spending the evening at a friend’s house, Steph had an internal bleed and lost consciousness. Despite quick action by her friends and the emergency team at Prince of Wales Hospital, she was not able to be revived.
There are few moments in life as horrendous as finding out someone you love has passed away. In the hours and days immediately following Steph’s death, shock and deep sorrow ripped through New College. How could it be that Steph—the beautiful, bright young woman we had been living alongside—was gone?
How does a community of young adults begin to come to terms with the loss of a friend and peer? For many collegians, this was their first time experiencing the acute grief of losing someone so close and someone their own age. We will all face death, but why Steph? Why now? In a community characterised by youth, opportunity, joy in learning and in life, Steph’s death just didn’t make sense.
The New College community sought to comfort each other, weeping, talking, walking, some praying together, attempting to come to terms with Steph’s death. For some the pain and the incomprehensibility of Steph’s passing meant that they wanted to talk about Steph and to share memories of her. For others, to acknowledge how they were feeling and share memories was too distressing. For all, the experience of grief was raw, lonely, and painful. Though collegians grieved differently we were all forced to consider human mortality, and our powerlessness in the face of death.
A coach of New Collegians and staff left from outside college very early on the morning of Friday 3rd November to travel to Gilgandra Presbyterian Church for Steph’s funeral. About 300 people attended the funeral. It was deeply emotional, an opportunity for family and friends to weep together but also to remember and give thanks for Steph’s life and the huge impact that she had had on so many of us.
As life continued, collegians felt the ongoing deep sorrow of the loss of a friend and the true weight and somewhat incomprehensible nature of death. Later in the semester at the annual Valedictory Dinner, Stephanie was awarded New Collegian of the Year to acknowledge and honour her outstanding contribution to college. A group of collegians participated in the World’s Greatest Shave to raise money for leukemia research. These events helped us as a community grieve and mark the loss of our friend and peer.
For Christians in college the grief of losing Steph was very deep and brought feelings of sorrow, anger and pain. Yet as Christians, we grieved with hope. How do we come to terms with Steph’s death and live life after loss? God calls us simply to cling to him. He knows the true depth of our greatest sorrows; he sent his beloved only Son to the cross to die a death he didn’t deserve. Jesus wept with his family when Lazarus died; Jesus weeps with us in our deepest grief.
How can God’s timing be good, taking Steph home to himself when he did? Although we don’t know the answer to this question, we can be assured of God’s good and overarching plan for Steph and for all of our lives. Our loving Father is working in a mighty way in all things to bring his people to himself for all eternity. Knowledge of God’s salvation plan for humanity —his compassion and mercy to us in Jesus— helps us understand both the deep and awful effects of sin in our world, and the true extent of God’s grace to us. It is this knowledge that helps us persevere through grief and suffering.
What does it mean to grieve with hope? Jesus taught his disciples to hope 2000 years ago. Before he left them to die on the cross he comforted them, reminding them that although he was going away, they would one day be united with him again. ‘I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). In death, Jesus was torn away from his Father and his followers. But Jesus overcame death when he rose from the dead and made a way for us—innately flawed humans—to be united with our perfect God. As we reflect back on Steph’s journey to faith, we see that her story is wrapped perfectly in Jesus’ story. That is, when Steph died she went away from us here in this world to be with God in heaven. In our troubles, in our grief, we can take heart and have peace knowing that ‘Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him’ (1 Thessalonians 4:14). God has offered hope beyond the grave of life and blessing with Him, all we need to do is trust Him. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we need to encourage each other through all the griefs and joys this life brings to remember the hope that we have. Where else have we to go, for God alone has words of eternal life (John 6:68).
Nearly four years on, many from the New College community continue to miss Steph. She is often in our thoughts and memories. Throughout this time it has become clearer to me that the pangs of losing a loved one don’t fully go away in this life. Rather, we carry them. Remembering Steph, her love for life, her love for other people and her love for Jesus, it is still such a deep sadness to know that she is gone; we won’t see her until Jesus returns. Through this sadness though, and as time has passed, God has taught me and many of Steph’s friends to hold all the more tightly to our hope in Jesus. The hope that we cling to through all our troubles is the same hope that Steph shared, being convinced that Jesus has died in her place and has secured a place for her in heaven. We know that she is now there with him, for all eternity. We can take heart and grasp hold of the assurance that Steph is home now with her loving Father. Like Steph, we can trust Jesus to sustain us through all of life’s joys and struggles, and through the horror of death itself into a life eternal with Him. A life where there will be no more tears or pain. This is the one true hope worth clinging to, and as we live after loss, it makes us cry ‘come Lord Jesus, come’.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
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