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Grief’s Toll on a Family

with Dennis Apple | October 17, 2008

Death affects more than just a marriage: it hurts an entire family. Pastor Dennis Apple, author of Life After the Death of My Son, remembers the adjustments his whole family had to make after the tragic death of his son Denny in 1991.

Death affects more than just a marriage: it hurts an entire family. Pastor Dennis Apple, author of Life After the Death of My Son, remembers the adjustments his whole family had to make after the tragic death of his son Denny in 1991.

Grief’s Toll on a Family

With Dennis Apple
|
October 17, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Dennis Apple: He was grieving terribly but, as a family member, he was trying to suck it up.  He didn't want us to feel worse than we were.  So it was as though we're kind of hiding our grief from each other right under our own household.  But he was grieving silently, and I would find out later that he would be with the kids from the church or other groups he was in, he could find someone to talk to there, but it was hard for him because he didn't perhaps want to see his mother or me cry anymore than what we were already.

This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, October 17th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  It's a big job for a parent to process your own grief after the loss of a child and to help a son or a daughter process his or her grief as well.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I don't know that you and I have ever talked about this.  When I was in the eighth grade, I was in class one morning, and there was a note came into my room, and they asked me to come down to the principal's office, and I was thinking, "I wonder what I've done."  Actually, I was thinking, "I wonder which of all of the things I've done they've found out about."

Dennis Rainey: Found out, yeah.

Bob: Well, I walked into the principal's office, and there was a police officer there, and I thought, "Well, I don't think I've done anything this bad."  But they asked me to sit down, and the police officer was the one who turned to me and said, "We've just received news that your sister has been killed in a car accident." 

My sister was nine years older than I was.  She and her husband were living in Illinois, and I had not been particularly close to her.  The nine-year age difference kind of meant we were in two different worlds, but I remember going home and meeting my mom in the living room as my mom as in tears at the sudden, traumatic loss of her oldest child, her daughter.

I remember going up to Illinois for the funeral and the days that followed and kind of watching my parents process the grief of all of that – not really understanding the full depth of it but knowing that they had experienced something that has got to be one of the hardest things any family, any parents, can experience.

Dennis Rainey: You're talking about grief, and I don't think the Christian community, as a whole, does a real good job of recognizing grief, understanding it, and then knowing how to relate to people who are going through it.

If anyone ought to be able to do that, it ought to be those who represent Jesus Christ and God because we have, in our hands, the truth of Scripture that brings hope to a grieving soul, to someone who has lost a brother, a sister, a child, and our guest on today's broadcast, Dennis Apple, knows a little about the subject we're speaking of here.  Dennis, welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Dennis Apple: Thank you.

Dennis Rainey: Dennis is a pastor at College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas.  He and his wife, Beulah, have two sons, Andrew and Denny, and as we've been listening to this week, they lost a son, Denny, suddenly to an unexplained cause of death.  They were getting ready to go on a ski trip, and he'd been sick with mononucleosis but ended up finding it difficult to breathe the night before, and you got up the next day when you were going to go on the ski trip, and you were shocked to find your son dead.

Dennis Apple: That's right.

Dennis Rainey: And then went through the process of beginning to recover in your marriage and your family from that death.

Bob: Dennis, how old was your younger son, Andy, when this happened?

Dennis Apple: Andy was two and a half years younger than his brother, and he was about 16 years old.

Bob: So he's in high school?

Dennis Apple: Yes, mm-hm.

Bob: And this is right before the family is going off on a ski trip in February, so I guess Andy was already at school when you found his brother had passed on.  How did Andy get the news?

Dennis Apple: Well, you're right, I had taken Andrew to the school and, you know, a couple of minutes away and back home and so when this all happened, then, my brother, who was living with us, I sent him on to the school to get Andy.

And Andy, I'm sure, has an experience similar to yours, Bob, you know, he'll never forget that.  He has recounted that story to me, wondering why he was being picked out of school.  He had just arrived there just a few minutes before, and then taken back home, and then to be faced with this news that he never in his wildest dreams had ever received that his brother had died.

Bob: Were Andy and Denny close?

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah.  Andy – as a matter of fact, I remember him saying to me, "Oh, Dad, when we lost Denny, I lost my best friend" – very close.

Dennis Rainey: Had they talked and planned about things they were going to do together as brothers?

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah, yeah.  They had, and loved to ski together and were competitive against one another on the ski slopes, and, of course, I loved, as a dad, to be with them and watch that happen.

As a matter of fact, I remember a ski trip that Andy had just a few weeks later with the kids from the church, and he came home with a sad face, and he said, "You know, I made a wonderful jump today" and he said, "on the way home I thought to myself, 'I've got to tell Denny about this,' and then the next thought was, 'He's not there.'"

Bob: You were just a few hours from having found your son dead on the sofa when your other son came home from school.  Do you remember that first encounter with Andy that morning?  Was he in tears?  Was he in shock?  What do you remember?

Dennis Apple: You're going to laugh at this, and I look back on it, and I can tell this now, but Denny had a truck.  He had a truck and had some clothes that his younger brother wanted, and it shows how things don't really sink in, but I remember him coming into the kitchen, and he said, "Okay, now can I have my brother's truck?"

Bob: That was his first comment?

Dennis Apple: [laughing] It wasn't his first comment but, you know, he came home – you're in such shock, you don't – it really hasn't sunk in, but he came in, and I looked at him, and my first impulse was, I just want to slap him.

Bob: Yeah.

Dennis Apple: We're all in shock and anger and all kinds of emotions were all over the map, and I looked at him, and he had on his brother's leather jacket, and he said, "Do I get the keys to his truck, too?"

I just wanted to say, "Don't you know what has happened here?"  And, looking back, there's all kinds of silly things come out of those early moments when we were in such shock, and he may not even remember it now, but I remember it very well, because it just stunned me, you know, I thought it's not even registering with him.  He doesn't even know.  He doesn't realize the shock is so out of this world that he just – on one level maybe he knew, but another level, he thought, "Oh, yeah, now I get his truck and clothes."

Dennis Rainey: Dennis, we spoke earlier of the impact that a death of a child has on a marriage.  When a child dies, there is also an impact on a family.  That family's identity takes a direct hit because your family was reduced by 25 percent.

Dennis Apple: Yes.

Dennis Rainey: You know, a vital, living person that was a part of making memories – how did that impact Andrew moving forward as he continued on in school and also your relationship with him – did it go through some ups and downs like your relationship did with your wife?

Dennis Apple: Yes, it really did.  Andrew is a very bright boy.  He just graduated here a few years ago from an Ivy League school, but that first year he was a student, as a matter of fact at Nashville at Vanderbilt.  He had been an exchange student in France.  He left in July and didn't get back until the following January.  But then he started, then, that following year, went to Vanderbilt, and I'll never forget the day when he called me there in Kansas City, "Dad, come and get me.  I'm sick."

Well, I went to get him and, sure enough, he was sick.  He was down so far, and I think that, looking back, his status was such that they would say he just had not really dealt with his brother's death.  He would have what some counselors would call post-traumatic stress syndrome and – disorder – and so he was in a bad way.

And, actually, I had to pull him out of his first year at Vanderbilt and bring him back home.  I'll tell you, that was one of the worst days of my life when I had to pack up everything – he was drawing straight A's, and yet he just came to the place where everything ground to a halt, and I had to take a van to Kansas City and drive down to Nashville, get him, pack him up, and my wife and brought him back to Kansas City to Olathe.  It was one of the worst days of my life.  I thought, "I've lost one son, now I feel like I'm losing the other."

Bob: Prior to that, had you seen him grieve?  Because the way you describe it with, "Gee, do I get the truck now?"  It sounds like he kind of went right on without really feeling it, and you and your wife are both under this crushing weight of grief.  Was he feeling any of that or showing any of it?

Dennis Apple: He was, and it revealed, there is one piece that he has in the book, a poem that he has, and the poem starts, "The last time I cried was the day my brother died."  He was grieving terribly but, again, like a lot of guys, I think, as a family member, he was trying to suck it up.  He didn't want us to feel worse than we were.

So it was as though we were kind of hiding our grief from each other right under our own household.  And I – looking, and I've talked to other family members, and a lot of times guys are the way – many times girls and women are more up front with their grief, but he was grieving silently, and I would find out later that he would be with the kids from the church or other groups he was in that he could find someone to talk to there.  But he didn't – he just – it was hard for him because he didn't, perhaps, want to see his mother or me cry anymore than what we were already.

Bob: You know, I was 14 when my sister died.  She was 23, so, again, there's this nine-year difference between the two of us.  It's not like Andy and Denny, who were two years apart and were brothers.  My sister and I were nine years apart and didn't really have a tight relationship.  But I do remember feeling a sense of responsibility, as a child, to protect and care for my parents.  I remember coming home and thinking, "I need to help comfort my mom," and I remember being in Illinois where the funeral was going to take place and feeling like I needed to step in and help with the arrangements for the funeral almost like I had to take charge because I could tell instinctively my parents aren't operating at peak, and so it was, like, "Well, I better step up and do something here."

Dennis Rainey: I want to ask you this question, Bob, and then, Dennis, I want you to comment on it as well.  Bob, did you ever go through a period of time after your sister's death where you resented what that did to your family because of how it created chaos, the unstable emotions of grief and watching your parents go through this and trying to fix them?  Did you ever express that anger that you hear people express towards God that this had occurred?

Bob: Yeah, this may sound callous, and I don't mean for it to, but my oldest sister and my parents had had a somewhat turbulent relationship.  She had been rebellious and had disobeyed Mom and Dad.  In fact, I remember the day I came home from school, and my mom said, "Well, your sister got married today."  We didn't go to the wedding.  I mean, it was that kind of an estranged relationship.

So rather than feeling resentment, there was a sense in which I felt relief that that chapter of turbulence had an ending to it.  Now, you can feel a little guilty feeling a sense of relief that that's over, but, no, that was the dominant feeling, was it had actually settled some issues and brought some peace.

Dennis Rainey: What about your family, Dennis, with your son, Andy?  Did he ever express any anger about how this impacted him and his family?

Dennis Apple: I can't recall that, Dennis.  I do know that he was very eager to get out of the house.  As I said earlier, our house was like a morgue, or like a funeral home without the body in it, and so no teenage boy wants to be around that sort of thing and that atmosphere.  So his plans to be an exchange student, although, you know, when you've lost one child, you want to wrap your arms around the other one and hang on, you don't want them out of your sight.  And I realized, man, there is no safe place in this world.  Denny died right under my nose.

So Andy's plans to go to France – that was his way of dealing with it.  That was on the front burner now.  He really wanted to get out of the house.  And he's told me since then, as we've reflected on that, he's told me, he said, "I wish that I could have been with you and mom somewhat before I had to come back and step back into it."

Dennis Rainey: He didn't get a chance to process like you guys were processing.

Dennis Apple: Exactly.  So he had to catch up, in a way, with us.  It was very difficult.

Dennis Rainey: Speaking of helping people process, you're a pastor, you see people go through these tragedies, well, different kinds of tragedies.  Maybe it's not the loss of a child, but could you give our listeners some – just some advice?  Maybe some things not to say and some things to say?  Because I have to believe right now that every listener who is hearing our broadcast knows a friend or has a friend or a family member who is going through a tragedy who needs them to step into their lives.

Dennis Apple: Yeah, yeah.  I would say this – when grief is fresh, the less said the better.  Hugs are better than throwing Bible verses at them.  I can't tell you how angry it made me feel when people would come up and throw the Romans 8:28 Scriptures at me, or be sure to give thanks to God in all things for what's happened to you.  I believed those Scriptures, certainly, I had spoken on them, preached and taught, but, I tell you, at a time like that, I didn't need to hear it.  I was so hurt, I felt so violated, and there are just no adjectives to describe it.

And so I say to people, again, when grief is fresh, the less said the better.  But I do think it's important that we acknowledge it.  That word is really big with me – that word "acknowledge."  A phone call, a card, e-mail are kind of impersonal, of course, but going out of your way to send flowers, something to acknowledge this person's loss.

I remember, my roommate in college, Keith, I remember calling, and he had lost a boy running into the street, a young boy, to get a ball, and years earlier, and I called him.  I said, "Keith, you'll never believe what's happened."  I told him, and I remember what he said was so brief.  It was in the middle of the night, and I couldn't sleep, I was just torn up. He said, "Dennis, I'm breaking out in a cold sweat as you tell me this," he said, "but I just want you to know two things – God's loved you, and I love you."

And I thought, "Is that all he's going to say?"  That's all he said, and I guess, looking back, that was probably one of the best things he could have said to me, because I felt like God had done a number on us, and I wasn't sure I was good for anything.

Bob: It's interesting that revisiting that phone call brings the emotions fresh to the surface. Why?

Dennis Apple: It just meant so much that, in my brokenness, Bob, he would acknowledge, he knew, and I think that's so important that someone knows, because when you're so torn like this on the inside, you want somebody else to know just how badly you have been devastated on the inside.

Because when we do that, it's kind of a mantra with me in grief work – I tell people, "Sorrow shared is sorrow halved."  And the opposite is true – "Joy shared is joy doubled."  Because I believe God has placed us in relationship where we certainly can hurt each other, but we can help heal one another, too.  So when Jesus says we're to bear one another's burdens, I think that's especially true at a time like this.  When we come alongside each other, we can help.

Bob: And what is it like 17 years later as you approach February 6th, or as you approach Denny's birthday or those milestone moments – do you get to a point where you go, "Oh, February 6th, that was last week, yeah, I just completely forgot."  Has that happened?

Dennis Apple: Oh, no.  Oh, no.  And what I've learned through the years, Bob, is as we finish – in our case, when we finish Christmas and New Year's, and we turn the corner of the year, and we start it, I know it's coming, and it's what I call "the dread of the date."  A few weeks out, before February 6th, something comes over me, and those closest to me, they know.  I find myself in meetings, I'll find that I'm quieter, there's a subduing spirit that comes over me.  You could tie me up, blindfold me, throw me into the deepest part of the ocean, I'd still know when February 6th is coming.

And I noticed that those five and the 10-year marks have been especially hard.  The difference between Beulah and myself, of course, she gave birth to him, on March 1, that's his birthday, just a few days later, that day is tougher for her.  But the fact that I found him on that morning of February 6th, that's harder for me, and, I'll tell you, man, I know exactly every February 6th at 8:20 in the morning, my eyes find that clock, my watch, and I remember.  I'll never forget it.  I know exactly what I was doing then, and I'll never – that day will never go by me but what I'll take time to reflect upon all that happened that day.

Bob: How many times have you imagined, in your own mind, a scene coming in the future when you will cross over and see him again?

Dennis Apple: You're going to make me cry now, but – yeah.  I've often thought of Paul's words there when the 12th chapter of Hebrews, after he talks about all of the great saints, and there's kind of a hall of fame of faith, you know, in the 11th chapter.  He says, "Now, therefore, seeing that we were encompassed about by such a great host of witnesses, let us run the face before us."  I don't know what he means there, but I often thought that those that are mentioned in the 11th chapter of Hebrews and my son, they are cheering for me in the stands.  That great host of witnesses, I think, somehow that may not be good doctrinally, but I like to think that he's there.  And one of these days the veil will be parted, and I will be able to see him, be reunited with him.  I can't imagine what that's going to be like.  I'm ecstatic with the thought of being reunited with him once again.

Dennis Rainey: And, Dennis, I just want to thank you for – well, for a couple of things.  One, being on the broadcast and being so open and honest with us here and sharing your story, but I want to thank you for writing your book because the honesty that's represented here is going to be used by God in who knows how many people's lives and it's going to cross paths with people who are in the midst of deep, dark days just like you and your wife went through.

I also want to read a passage of Scripture that we've read as we've talked about your story.  It's 1 Peter, chapter 4, verse 19 – I think there may be one more person who needs to hear this verse – "Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will, entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good."  And, Dennis, you've not done it perfectly, but you haven't quit, and I just appreciate you being faithful and also doing good and turning your son's death and the tragedy of that into a way of ministering to many.  Thanks.

Dennis Apple: Thank you.

Bob: And I'll say thanks as well, on behalf of – I know a lot of listeners who have been tuned in this week or who have contacted us to get a copy of your book, which is called "Life After the Death of my Son."  In fact, I was reading a comment online from someone who wrote and said, "I'm a mom who has buried two children – a stillborn daughter and a 16-year-old son, and I have a ministry with bereaved mothers, and I've read a lot of books on the subject of grief in the loss of a child, but I have never read a book that hit the raw emotions and the grief journey I've walked with the kind of open honesty that you model in this book."

And, of course, we've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  If a listener is interested in getting it for themselves or to pass along to someone who may have experienced the loss of a child, even months or years ago, just to go our website, FamilyLife.com.  On the right side of the home page, you'll see a box that says "Today's Broadcast," and if you click on the button that says "Learn More," and that will take you to the area of the site where you can get more information about Dennis's book.  You can order a copy of it from us online, if you'd like.

Again, the website is FamilyLife.com.  You can also call us, if that's easier – 1-800-FLTODAY is the number – 1-800-358-6329 – 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we'll make arrangements when you call to have a copy of the book sent out to you.

Then let me also encourage you to contact us as well.  We have a CD that we'd like to send you at no cost.  It's a conversation that we had not long ago with author and speaker, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, on the subject of forgiveness.  And we've heard from a number of our listeners this week who have said, "That's a real issue for me."  Whether it's with a family member or a friend, someone who has hurt me deeply in the past, this CD will help you think more biblically about that subject and, hopefully, will help you come to a place where you can extend forgiveness to someone who has hurt you and bring healing and reconciliation to that relationship.

You can simply call and request our conversation with Nancy Leigh DeMoss on the subject of forgiveness when you call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, someone on our team will make arrangements to get a copy of the CD sent out to you, and we look forward to hearing from you.

We also hope you have a great weekend.  We hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend and hope you can join us back on Monday.  Cindy Easley is going to join us to talk about one of the most controversial subjects in the Bible – the subject of submission in marriage.  What does that mean?  What does it look like?  What is it supposed to be all about?  We'll talk about it on Monday, and I hope you can tune in and be with us.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.  

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