This book was written by Dennis Apple in 2008, 17 years after the death of his 18-year old son from complications of mono on February 6, 1991. At the time of his son’s death and also at the time of writing this book, Dennis was a staff pastor at a large church in Kansas.
I found this to be a refreshingly honest book written by a man whose son had died unexpectedly. In writing this book, the author went back to his journals written at the time of his son’s death and in the years following, using specific quotes from those journals to write about his experiences.
Typically, I have discovered, more articles, books and blogs on grief following the death of a child are written by women than they are by men. With some well-written exceptions, a number of the male-written articles and books on the grief experienced following the death of a child are written by men who are researchers or hold jobs in a professional capacity (psychologist, psychiatrist, pastor, etc.), and who have not actually walked the walk of a bereaved father. To me, I have found that an item written on the death of a child is more authentic and carries more “weight” if it’s been written by someone who has actually experienced it first hand.
Will It Always Hurt This Much?
In the first chapter, Dennis tells the story of walking into a grief support group two weeks following the death of his son. After telling the group their son had died two weeks earlier, “one of the women spoke up and said to us ‘Hang in there – the second year is often worse than the first!’ I remember thinking, If that’s true, then you might as well kill us right now. There is no way we’ll make it if it gets worse than this (p. 12).”
Looking back, I see that she was a trying to prepare us. Much of our first year was spent in a daze as we trudged through each day like sad robots…Fresh grievers don’t want to hear this truth, but it’s best to be prepared for what’s to come…When we faced the second year, the second round of painful reminders on the calendar, we knew we were in this for the long haul (p. 12-13).
Similar to the situation I encountered at a Compassionate Friends meeting when I was told, “Oh, you’re just a baby [in the grief process],” it’s a very hard thing to hear early on that this is a very long journey. No parent wants to know that it will take a lot of hard work and time to reach a new normal, especially when all they want to do is to wake up from this nightmare.
I’m torn on whether or not this is helpful to know this at the onset. I guess it depends on the people involved and the way it’s communicated – gently and with an assurance that they can make it through and that they are not alone in the journey. I remember early on trying to contact someone I knew who had lost two children in a fire. I just wanted someone to tell me I would survive, to pray with me. Although the author says it’s best to be prepared and to know this truth, he says in a later chapter that “it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected (p. 143).”
Bereaved parents feel as though they’re on a long, sad march but have no final destination. We feel as though this overwhelming sadness will be with us forever. We’re expected to move on, yet something within us resists these expectations to move on so quickly…Bereaved parents are also learning how to play hurt, but the casual onlooker has no idea how badly they’ve been injured or how long it will take to recover (p. 15).
Our injury is made even worse by people who try to fast-forward us through our grief. They suggest we should come to some sort of closure…I borrowed a phrase from another griever whom I heard say, “People close on houses, not on the death of a child (p.16).”
Few people whose children are living understand the formidable task that bereaved parents face. Gradually, bereaved parents must face the realization that their lives, and the lives of their entire family, have been changed forever. The struggle before them is to find a new “normal” (p. 17).
Will Our Marriage Survive This?
In this chapter on marriage, Dennis writes about some of the struggles he and his wife had in their marriage dealing with the differences in the way each approached grief. He calls it the “grief dance” they were having and uses an example of two amateurs trying to dance together and badly stepping on each others toes in the process. Their separate and individual approaches to grief, accompanied by his wife’s deep and lengthy grief process, nearly caused them to separate.
In the months and years following our son’s death, there were times when we thought about going our separate ways. We still loved each other, but the grief from our son’s death was like a dirty wedge, driving us apart.
…Sixteen years after Denny’s death, we still have sore toes from stepping on each other’s feet. A casual observer could easily look at us today and think we’re both accomplished dancers as we move together as one.
It wasn’t always that way. The truth is, we simply chose to stay with each other regardless of what happened. Each of us mourned differently and understood there were times we cold help one another. Other times, we simply couldn’t (p.44).
The author talks about the differences between the way men and women grieve: “Women mourn, but men replace (p. 31).” Two weeks after the death of his son, Dennis went back to work, using work and its hectic schedule in an attempt to outrun his grief. Meanwhile, his wife was left on her own to grieve alone. As time went by, Dennis got impatient with her grief while trying to ignore his own.
Along my grief journey I have met countless men, who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. Whenever I see this happening, I remind them of an oil filter commercial. In that commercial, the mechanic holds up a dirty oil filter and says, “You will either pay me now or pay me later.” For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road (p.33).
…Across the years, I have encountered several men who have tried to fast-forward the mother of a dead child through her grief and suffering. If I can be of any help to another man about this, I would say as hard as it may be, please allow her to express herself through her grief without being hurried. It may be the most difficult task you have ever faced, but stay with her and allow her to drain this cup of sorrow. She suffered through the labor pains as she gave birth to the child, and now she will likewise need your support as she faces the labor pains of grieving over her dead child (p. 42).
Am I Losing My Mind?
In this chapter, the author discusses the profound way we are affected by grief – mentally, physically, psychologically. He was surprised at how long the “fog of grief” lasted for him – not just weeks, but years – and how his body was affected by the grief over the death of his son.
Prior to Denny’s death, I had no clue about the many ways a parent is affected by this kind of loss. I remember seeing the sad faces of other bereaved parents in our community but had no idea of the mental and physical pain brought on by the death of their child. The consequences of this type of death are often hidden from the casual onlooker.
Mimi Guameri writes in her book The Heart Speaks, “Doctors will tell you, broken heart syndrome or stress-induced heart failure is a medical condition…This condition seems to be caused by high levels of hormones that the body produces during severe stress, which can be temporarily toxic to the heart.” In other words, you can die from a broken heart, and these days medical science is able to observe this happening in grievers. Now when I see people in deep grief holding their chests, I realize just how vulnerable they really are. Sometimes I felt as though I would die too (p. 55-56).
Where Is God?
The death of a child can bring into question a person’s beliefs and faith, and this pastor/bereaved father is no different.
I had always trusted the words of Jesus found in Scripture: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). However, on February 6, 1991, everything I believed about prayer was challenged when God did not respond to my most desperate prayer (p. 64).
The author goes on to talk about his belief that shock following the death of a child is God’s way of protecting us when we experience tragedy. We can’t handle everything, every emotion, all at once. People tend to misunderstand the reactions of a bereaved parent who is in shock and misinterpret it as not caring, not crying, or that the parent is doing so well. “Little do they know that the survivors are in a deep, soul-numbing state and are not able to feel the full effects of their loss – yet (p. 68).”
He also talks about his beliefs in God coming into question and his anger at hearing someone tell how a “guardian angel” had protected their loved one from harm. “I tried my best to join them in their good fortune, but inwardly I was thinking, Where was my son’s guardian angel on the night of February 6? (p. 69).”
He continued working in his profession as a pastor, all the while trying to figure out why God had not answered his prayers and whether his beliefs of God were accurate. “Gradually, I came to the place in which I accepted the fact that we live in a fallen world, a place where the rain falls on the just and unjust…It may seem as though God has forsaken you, but He is still there with you, even though the fog may hide Him for a while (p. 76-77).”
I Don’t Want Him to be Forgotten
Losing a child is in a class by itself…We expect to see our children grow up, get their educations, marry, and have their families. We look forward to seeing our children’s children so we can enjoy the role of loving grandparents, take them to Disney World, carry their pictures with us, show them off, and brag (p. 82).
While others we know, including our child’s friends, move into new life adventures, bereaved parents are acutely aware of the myriad of events that are no longer possible, not only for their child, but for them as parents.
In this chapter, the author lists multiple ways to honor and remember a deceased child – scholarship funds, planting trees, sending greeting cards, commemorative bricks, and many more. The one thing a parent – especially us mothers – fear is that our child will be forgotten. We are the keepers of the memories. It is our job to make sure our child is not forgotten.
His Birthday is Coming Up
The first missed birthday was a nightmare, and I had assumed it would be rough. What surprised me was how future birthdays and holidays also affected me…I found myself wishing we could somehow skip these family times and simply stick to a yearly calendar without holidays (p. 98-99).
In this chapter, the author discusses the difficulty of birthdays, death days and holidays. He also discusses the “sneak attacks” of grief that happen when we least expect them, along with suggestions on how to deal with them.
When griever has one or several of these painful grief attacks crashing into his or her mind and emotions, it causes a pressure to build up, not unlike the steam pressure that builds up in a pressure cooker. When this happens, it’s important to find someone to whom you can confide about your internal pain. When someone chooses to be your companion and truly listen to your pain – without trying to fix you – you can begin to find relief and decrease the internal pressure (p. 112).
An editorial side note: As one of ten kids and pastor of a large church, the author mentions several times about the incredible support that they had. In writing this section, as well as other places where the he talks about support or finding support, I realized that I have come to this conclusion: As difficult as it is for a person who has never experienced the death of a child to realize how difficult it is to walk the daily walk of a parent whose child has died, it is equally difficult for a person who has had support in their walk as a bereaved parent to truly understand what it’s like to NOT have such support. The notion that everyone has or can find adequate support in their grief journey is an assumptive, erroneous one. I wish it were otherwise and that every bereaved parent had or could find adequate support, but I know firsthand that it’s not.
I Love My Church – But Sometimes It Hurts to Be There
Although the author talks about the incredible support he had, he also felt that “it was a place where we were misunderstood and wounded as well (p. 118).” His wife had a very difficult time being in church, partly because the all the families represented something that was no longer possible for her. The use of “encouraging” scripture to try to cheer them up, ignoring the pain, the “at least you will see them again” comments, and many other wounds opened his eyes to ways the church could better respond to those who deeply grieve.
Quite often I hear Christians use scripture to infer that because we have the confidence and hope of heaven, we should not grieve like the rest of the world. While it’s true that we grieve differently, scripture does not teach Christians to smile and bravely face our losses. It simply reminds us of the difference between our grief and the grief of those who have no hope (p. 121).
In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, asa well as members of the church, who seemed uncomfortable with my grief and sadness…It seemed they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. One scripture in particular that was used…was I Thess. 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for Denny’s death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”
I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on – out of my presence. The people who said these things were never people who had lost children. Those who had lost a child knew better…It’s as though these people are the grief police, not wanting us to express our feelings of sadness. They want us to buck up and get over it (p. 123-124).
The author goes on to explain how the experiences in his church helped open his eyes to ways to minister to the grieving, instituting practices within the church that were adopted on a long-term basis.
I Didn’t Cry This Morning
Every newly bereaved person I talk with always wants to know how long his or her pain will continue, how long his or her bitter winter of sorrow will last. It’s a natural question to ask. After all, grieving is the hardest work we do, and it’s only natural to want to know “When do I get a break from this?” The soul-crushing weight of grief is almost more than a person can bear, and we often wonder if the day will ever come when we’ll smile or laugh again. Then, when we do start to get a “break” from our pain, we often feel guilty.
…It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected. Along the way, there have been times when I would get a glimmer of hope that we might survive it (p. 136-138).
It may take years before the green shoots of hope begin to appear in your life. Again, be patient and keep looking for them. They’ll reappear after your long winter of grief (p. 143).
The author then goes on and gives a list of 30 suggestions of where to look for encouragements of growth and healing – not crying yourself to sleep every night, going to the grocery store without falling apart when walking past your child’s favorite foods, you start noticing the beauty around you again, and many more.
The last two chapters, I’m Beginning to Live Again and A Wounded Healer?, focus on ways to find help (church, support groups, etc.), ways that the author has integrated his grief into his ministries in church and the purpose he found following the death of his son.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I found this book to be refreshingly honest and frank. Although the author talks a lot about the grief process and his own person grief journey, he also gives practical and helpful suggestions for the walk. I would highly recommend this book. As always, I suggest the reader consider what may apply to their personal lives and let go of that which may not.
(My criteria and process for reviewing books can be found here: https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/reviewing-books-on-grief/)
Apple, Dennis L, life after the death of my son: what I’m learning, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City (March 10, 2008).
© 2019 Rebecca Carney