Tight-knit community grieve Lilie James tragedy together

Since the tragic death of Lilie James, a beloved water polo coach at Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral School, the community has been in mourning. The shocking events of Wednesday night have reverberated around the school and beyond.

Lilie James, water polo coach at SACS

Lilie James Lilie James / Facebook

“We are left with grief, shock and utter confusion,” said Dr Julie McGonigle, head of the school, addressing the senior school. A particular difficulty faces senior students who sit HSC exams this week on the site of the traumatic event.

Dr Peter Hughes, the father of two students at the school, echoes McGonigle’s statement. “Everyone’s still in shock,” he tells Eternity. “The student body is certainly still grappling to understand.”

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It is not only the students and staff who form the tight-knit school community but also the parents. “Even though the school has a very broad regional draw, the parents are a strong community within the school,” Hughes explains. Accordingly, he thinks it is important that parents, as well as students and staff, also be given support to process their grief and confusion.

“It’s going to be a tough journey, but I’m glad it’s a community that’s tight-knit to journey through it together.” – Peter Hughes

Hughes is confident the school will deal with the situation well. “I think they’ve done a brilliant job so far,” he reflects, “and I think they’ll continue to do a great job. This is something that should not define the school community and shouldn’t define the school. This is a great school. God has done some great things in the school.”

The school has provided a place of prayer each morning for any member of its community, whether or not they consider themselves “a praying person”.

According to Hughes, the closeness of the community has made the experience both easier and harder.

“Having a tight-knit community means you are closer to the event relationally,” he explains. By all accounts, the event has been harder to process because so many people knew Lilie James and/or Paul Thijssen, her suspected killer, himself a sports coach at the school.

“But,” Hughes continues, “it also means you have people around you to help you through the process. I think God puts us in community to do that. It’s going to be a tough journey, but I’m glad it’s a community that’s tight-knit to journey through it together.”

“It’s not about demanding the answers from God – because he’s not a government department; he’s God – but trusting in his character.” – Peter Hughes

In an open letter to school parents, Hughes wrote, “For many of you, this is the first time you have experienced anything like this. Sadly for me, this is not my first rodeo.” Hughes is intimately aware of the questions raised by such troubling and confusing circumstances.

“In these sorts of situations, you want answers,” he reflects. “We’re not going to get a lot of those answers. Some we will, but others we won’t. It’s not about demanding the answers from God – because he’s not a government department; he’s God – but trusting in his character. We trust that God is worthy of trusting through this, and he’ll be with us and be supporting us through it.”

While he feels the weight of sorrow and confusion in the wake of Lilie James’ death, Hughes adds that he is waiting expectantly for God to be present and active in the community in surprising ways.

“At this stage, people aren’t yet asking questions about where God is in all of this. But I think that will happen down the track.”

In the meantime, says Dr McGonigle, “The tight-knit, deeply loving and faith-filled nature of our community is what will get us through this.”

Dr McGonigle says she holds on to the words of Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

While the community processes their shock, Hughes suggests three ways to pray:

Pray

Some prayer points to help

  • Pray that God will bring comfort during this difficult time.
  • Pray that God will bring healing within the community.
  • Pray that God will be at work in surprising and amazing ways.