The death of his son left pastor Dennis Apple wondering, Will it always hurt this much? Dennis recounts one of his life’s most painful experiences on today’s broadcast.
The death of his son left pastor Dennis Apple wondering, Will it always hurt this much? Dennis recounts one of his life’s most painful experiences on today’s broadcast.
Bob: When his son died, Pastor Dennis Apple found himself having to deal with anger – anger he felt toward God.
Dennis Apple: For some reason I wanted to take my desk – I guess it represented all that I was doing there at the church as a pastor – I wanted to take that desk and just throw it. It's a big, huge old desk, and I had so much adrenalin, I was so angry, I thought, "Somebody's got to pay for this," and I wanted to grab that desk and throw it right out the window. And I didn't know where to go with it, I was so angry. I thought, "God has let me down in my hour of deepest need," and I thought, "I just don't know what to do."
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 15th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. What do you do when you have feelings of anger toward God? We'll find out from Dennis Apple today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. Do you remember where you were when you got the news about your friend, Mick, and the plane crash that had taken his son's life?
Dennis Rainey: I do – standing by the sink doing some dishes with Barbara. We had three children at the time. It was four days before Christmas, and a highway patrolman called me to tell me that my buddy had been in a plane crash in Greenville, South Carolina, and their five-year-old son had been killed in that plane crash.
And, immediately, Barbara and I knew what I needed to do. There was hardly any discussion – I'll get on a plane, go over there, it doesn't matter if I stay through Christmas. My friend, Mick, who survived the plane crash was in a hospital, his body was crushed and mangled from the plane wreck, and their family needed a pastor to do the service, and I remember standing over a coffin not a lot bigger than this coffee table that we're leaning on right here, and attempting to bring comfort to Mick's wife, Helen, and the other boys – Benjy's brothers. And, Bob, I don't remember a more difficult assignment in ministry in my 38 years of attempting to minister to people than doing that service.
Bob: Trying to enter into the grief that a mom and a dad would feel at that point, it's almost impossible. You can imagine it, but you really can't imagine it until you've lived it, can you?
Dennis Rainey: You can't. And this week we're going to hear from a pastor who, in his attempt to comfort others, was in need of being comforted himself. Dennis Apple joins us on FamilyLife Today. Dennis, welcome to the broadcast.
Dennis Apple: Thank you, good to be here.
Dennis Rainey: Dennis is on the pastoral staff at College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas. He gives leadership to recovery and support groups, senior adult ministry, hospital visitation, but also is really attempting to bring the consoling love of Christ to those who are going through the grieving process.
He and his wife, Beulah, live there in Olathe. They have two sons – Andrew and Denny. He has written a book called "Life After the Death of My Son." And that is a tipoff here of what we're talking about, Dennis. This is a story of your own, which you refer to as "your own 9/11" that occurred on February 6, 1991. Take us to that day.
Dennis Apple: Yes, well, it was a foggy morning. I'll just never forget the fog, the dense fog of that day, and I had looked forward to that day. That was a day that I was supposed to take a busload of single adults and married people from our church, it was kind of a family and singles thing combined, to go skiing. My boys and my wife and I had all made it a part of our family plans, and we looked forward to that day, and so that day suitcases half packed in the house, and we were ready to go, but my older son, Denny, had come down a few days earlier with mono; taken him to the doctor a couple of days prior; medications. The doctor said "You can go. You're not going to feel much like skiing, but you can go."
He laid around Tuesday but then on Wednesday, that fateful day, he was asleep on the couch in the family room, fireplace, plants, remote control – that's where he wanted to hang out that night. We said fine.
So I took the younger boy, Andy, I took him to school and came back home, had a bowl of cereal and just kind of checking things over, and I looked down from our kitchen down to the family room, and I didn't hear him breathing so loudly as he had the night before, so I thought, "He's turned the corner, he's much better."
I finished my bowl and went downstairs to where he was – the kitchen, as I said, overlooked the family room – went down there, and as I approached him, I just sense something was wrong, and I got closer and closer and realized that something was radically wrong, and I yelled for my wife. At the same time, I flipped his body off onto the floor, started CPR, and my brother was living with us at the time. He was a certified EMT. He heard me scream, came bounding out of his room and came down to the floor where I was working on my son's body.
And he quickly assessed that Denny had been gone for maybe two or three hours. And so I turned around and screamed – I remember the words, the exact words, when I screamed out, "Oh, my God, this is not supposed to happen to me."
So that was the scene in my house at about 20 minutes after 8, February the 6th, 1991.
Dennis Rainey: What did you mean by that statement – "This is not supposed to happen to me?"
Dennis Apple: Yeah, I've looked back on that and thought about it myself. I guess it reveals a silly notion that I had that just because I was a pastor in a church that these sorts of things wouldn't happen to me, and I thought about it a little bit. My mind goes back to the Old Testament story where Moses was in process of leading the children of Israel out from the Egyptian bondage, and so the last night, the 10th and final plague was the killing of the firstborn, and so the children of Israel were protected as they took the blood of the lamb that Moses had given directions for and killed and placed that blood over the doorpost of their home, and the death angel would pass over.
So I guess I had that notion that just because I was a Christian and living for the Lord that this sort of tragedy wouldn't happen to me. And so I lived with that naïve assumption, and so that remark that came screaming out of my throat – "This is not supposed to happen to me" – I guess reveals that crazy thought that I had.
Bob: You said that Denny had been diagnosed with mono.
Dennis Apple: Yeah.
Bob: Mono is not a fatal disease.
Dennis Apple: Exactly, no, it isn't, and yet on the death certificate that's what you'll find – complications due to mono. We allowed for an autopsy because we just needed to know. We have another son, younger, and there are all kinds of implications here. But we really never found out the exact reason. We have theories, of course, maybe something in the medication that he was allergic to that closed off his airway and just died in his sleep. There is no sign of a struggle, nothing, he just went to sleep and died.
Bob: He was a healthy young man, right?
Dennis Apple: Oh, exactly, and that's one of the things that disarmed me, Bob. He was a triathlete, competed, I've watched him just, you know, swim enormous amounts of hours and even biking and running and had the stamina to do all that. And so when the doctor said he could go skiing and then coupled with the fact that he was in such great shape, it really disarmed me, as a parent. I thought he was just fine.
Dennis Rainey: You know, I've been close to a few people, a handful, in my lifetime, who have been through something like what you're talking about. Those who have never had this happen to them cannot begin to fathom how – it's like the earth's crust moves. Everything that you've known to be stable is turned upside down.
And, undoubtedly, your faith went through the most severe test that perhaps any human being could face. I don't know, Bob, if you've ever thought about, after losing a sister, if you've ever thought about one of your children dying, but I've been close enough, I've thought, I don't know if there would be a harder assignment, I really don't. Was that true for you?
Dennis Apple: Oh, yes. Those first few days – of course, you're in such shock you just – you're walking around like a zombie, and I mentioned in the book, I liken it as somebody waking up after a general anesthetic. You know, the nurse is talking to you, and you know what she's saying but, on another level, it's not really sinking in. And so you're like that for a long time, and I think shock is a gracious and wonderful thing that God does to us. It's like the numbing of a tooth a dentist does to us before he works on it, and you're awake, and you walk through the funeral and the visitation, but after a while that begins to come off just like it does on a tooth, and then you begin to feel the full pain, the full weight of what has happened.
And that's when, spiritually, I began to move into what I call the "deep, dark night of the soul," and it was – it lasted for a long time for me.
Dennis Rainey: You know, one of the things that occurs in people's lives who have been through something like this is they have to wonder what's happened to their prayers – prayers of protection, prayers for the safety of their children. In the families that I've touched, it seems that prayer really falls into some areas of doubt or of serious question. Did that occur in your life?
Dennis Apple: Oh.
Dennis Rainey: You and your wife, Beulah, had had a prayer meeting even the night before he died.
Dennis Apple: That's right, we did. We knelt right there by his bedside, placed – I still remember, Dennis, placing my hand on his head as she did hers, and we prayed together that God would help him. And in the aftermath, after all this was over with, I remember the night very well. My wife said to me, "Dennis, does God really care, does prayer really matter?" And she, of course, is me, as I was, looking back to that night when we prayed together for him.
And so that was the beginning of a long stretch of time for me when I – everything I thought I knew about prayer, everything in my faith, everything was up for a vote again, and I mean I was wrestling with this. Does God really care? What does all this mean? And I think that's the real question – and it was a question mark. Why? Why, God, why has this happened? And the words of Jesus on the cross – "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" Those were my words time and time and time again.
Bob: So did you come to a resolution on those issues? Have you come – I mean, it's been years now – are you in a place where you still pray because you do think it matters?
Dennis Apple: Yes, I do, but it was a long time, and as I mentioned in the book, it was just not a few days and weeks, we're talking months and even years. My Bible lay there on my desk. It gathered dust. I found myself angry at God. For some reason, I wanted to take my desk – I guess it represented all that I was doing there at the church as a pastor – I wanted to take that desk and just throw it. It was a big, huge, old desk, and I had so much adrenalin, I was so angry, I thought, "Somebody's got to pay for this." And I wanted to grab that desk and throw it right out the window.
And I didn't know where to go with it, I was so angry. I thought, "God has let me down in my hour of deepest need," and I thought, "I just don't know what to do." And so I found myself not reading my Bible, not praying except when I was called on in hospitals or over dinners or with someone in my office. I could do it for everybody else but inside, I guess you would say I had a spiritual crisis going on. Everything I thought I believed about God, I was finding I had to go back and re-vote on again, because I was not sure in this God that I thought loved me, because He had let me down in my deepest, deepest moment.
Bob: Did anybody in the church know what Pastor Apple was thinking about in his secret moments; that he was wondering if God really cared?
Dennis Apple: Well, no, I didn't let that out, I really didn't.
Dennis Rainey: Really? You didn't let some close friends know what was going on in your soul?
Dennis Apple: No, I didn't, I just didn't do it.
Dennis Rainey: That couldn't have been good for you.
Dennis Apple: No, it wasn't, absolutely not. And I just kept it there, and I had physical problems. I had to be taken into the doctor for EKG, heart stress test, all those sorts of things, and I guess that's another story, but the deal is I just didn't let anybody know. And I'll tell you, though, the Sunday, the time when I chose to really let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, to really let people know, was four years later on the very Sunday he would have graduated.
Our sanctuary is rather large. You can get about 4,000 people in there, and so the nearby university has the graduation exercises there, and they had asked me to speak briefly. Our church was having a big musical, "God With Us," was the theme of it, and they had a couple of testimonies, and the music director asked me, he said, "Will you give a testimony of how" – he said, "I need somebody who prayed a prayer, and it didn't quite work out the way they wanted." And they had another gentleman who had a sick daughter, it all worked out for them. Everybody prayer, she comes out of ICU, she is healed, everything is fine.
And I remember, I was sitting there, and he spoke first, and then the choir sang on some more. The place is filled with graduates, their parents, it's a big deal, and I thought, "Do I dare tell the truth about where I have been spiritually?"
And so when it came my turn, I went to the microphone, and I said – I acknowledged the other gentleman, the other family and the little girl, and – because she had just run up to her dad after he had spoken, and he lifted her and, boy, I mean, the place was alive with applause, and I thought, "Oh, man, they've got to hear my story now."
And so I walked up, and I acknowledged her, and I said, "I remember praying for her." And then I went ahead and told the truth about where I had been. And I told about how angry I had been at God; talked about my prayerlessness; my lack of spiritual disciplines, and what I would normally do in my reading. I just told about how angry I was with God.
But then, by that time, I told also about something that had happened to me not long before. I had been working – we had, in just a few weeks before, it had been Easter, and our church was just full of the setting for the Easter pageant – we call it "The Victor." I was working outside. I didn't want to go inside. I would coordinate the shuttle and to traffic people all outside.
And so there was a young man that I needed to talk to who helped me coordinate everything outside, and they told me on that particular day that he was in the choir and he was practicing in our auditorium, in our church sanctuary. So I made my way to the back of the sanctuary because I needed to talk to him just as soon as they finished. And I was all alone, nobody else in the sanctuary. But that mid-America University Choir began to sing a song that was written out of the words of Isaiah in Isaiah 43. And I'm telling you, Dennis and Bob, when I heard them sing, I knew God had me there for a particular reason.
And the electricity, I mean, the whole atmosphere changed in there, and they said, "Fear not, for I am with you. When you walk through the waters, they'll not overflow you. When you go through the fire, you'll not be burned." And I sat there, and I knew that God was telling me something.
And so I told that story, then, on graduation morning, and I told about how God brought me back. I was just reduced to tears, and it was a moment of return for me, and that's when I began to tell the truth, began to break the silence and tell what had happened.
Dennis Rainey: You know, I said this at the beginning of the broadcast – the Christian community does not know how to relate to someone who is going through this level of grief. It is beyond imagination, but the Holy Spirit knows how to relate to an individual.
Dennis Apple: That's right.
Dennis Rainey: And as you were talking, I was thinking about a verse I read to, interestingly, someone earlier this morning, who made the statement how in the midst of a crisis they're going through – it's not near what you and your wife faced, Dennis, but they were going, you know, "I just don't feel like we deserve what we're going through. Why are we being tested? What's going on here?"
And it's into that series of questions that God speaks. In 1 Peter, chapter 4, verse 12 – "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial, when it comes upon you, to test you as though some strange thing were happening to you. But rejoice – insofar as you share the sufferings of Christ, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed."
Dennis Apple: Right.
Dennis Rainey: And then it concludes and tells us how to endure. It says, "Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will, entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good." It's interesting in your story, Dennis, what I heard there was an attempt to continue to faithfully be obedient to what He called you to do while you were sorting through those deep spiritual waters.
Dennis Apple: Yes, and you've said something very important there, and I would say this to people who are grieving, Dennis, because it just – I reach for metaphors, I reach – there are no adjectives to describe what this does to you emotionally, spiritually, and all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, day after day, week after week, and sometimes minute after minute, just to keep going.
And I think that's some of the hardest – well, not some, that is the hardest work I have ever done in my life is to try to keep going.
Bob: Let me ask you – if I knew someone who had lost a child, when would be the right time in the grieving process for me to give them a copy of your book? Should I – not the first week after the child has died, right?
Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah. I would say certainly weeks, if not months, out – and even as far out – if you've known someone that's been out a few years, it's still not a bad idea to let them see this.
Bob: And even if they appear to be doing fine, having adjusted, you still would say press in and say, "If you need to talk, I'm here, and I thought this book might help you."
Dennis Rainey: Well, Dennis laughed because he appeared to be fine.
Bob: That's my point, yeah, and there may be folks that our listeners know – in fact, there are, undoubtedly, folks our listeners know who have been through an experience like this who would be helped by a copy of Dennis's book. In fact, I was looking at some of the reviews online for this book, and one person wrote in and said, "This is not just a book for bereaved parents. It ought to be read by pastors and grief counselors and extended family of the bereaved – anyone who wants or should understand the pain after the loss of a child." And I would agree.
We've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center. It's called "Life After the Death of my Son," by our guest today, Dennis Apple, and you can go to 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 the button that says, "Learn More," you will be right at the place you need to be to find out more about Dennis's book or to order a copy of the book from us online.
Again, the website is FamilyLife.com, or if it's easier to call to place your order, call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we'll make arrangements to have a copy of this book sent out to you.
You know, this week we have also heard from a lot of our listeners, Dennis, who have contacted us to request the CD that we're making available at no cost for any listener who would like to receive it. It's a conversation we had not long ago with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. She has written a book on the subject of forgiveness. It's called "Choosing Forgiveness," and we've had a lot of folks call and say, "I need to listen to that CD, because I'm wrestling with this issue of forgiveness toward a loved one, a family member, a friend," and so we've sent a lot of these out, and we want to make it available to any listener who contacts us today – just request a copy of the CD that features our conversation with Nancy Leigh DeMoss on the subject of forgiveness, and you can request it by calling 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and we look forward to hearing from you.
Tomorrow we're going to continue to find out about the path that Dennis Apple found himself on following the death of his son, and I hope you can join us for that conversation.
We are so happy to provide these transcripts for you. However, there is a cost to transcribe, create, and produce them for our website. If you've benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs?
Copyright © FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
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 tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.
We are so happy to provide these transcripts to you. However, there is a cost to transcribe, create, and produce them for our website. If you’ve benefited from the broadcast transcripts, would you consider donating today to help defray the costs?
Copyright © FamilyLife. All rights reserved.