FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Will Our Marriage Survive?

with Dennis Apple | October 16, 2008
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A son’s death and the heartache that followed nearly drove Dennis Apple’s marriage apart. Today, Dennis recalls the unbearable grief that accompanied his son’s death, and the resurrection of his marriage with time, love, and commitment.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • A son’s death and the heartache that followed nearly drove Dennis Apple’s marriage apart. Today, Dennis recalls the unbearable grief that accompanied his son’s death, and the resurrection of his marriage with time, love, and commitment.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

A son’s death and the heartache that followed nearly drove Dennis Apple’s marriage apart.

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Will Our Marriage Survive?

With Dennis Apple
October 16, 2008
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Bob: After Dennis Apple's son died, he remembers thinking he would do almost anything to stop the pain.

Dennis Apple: I remember when I was at my lowest point, and I said, "Now, I see now why people do the drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, buying, you'd do most anything to get out of this horrible pain that you are in."

And so my drug of choice was work.  If I could just keep myself busy, I didn't have to think about it, and I've talked to a lot of men through the years who, like me, want to get this – "Let's get this behind us, let's move on."

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, October 16th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  What do you do with the pain you're feeling after a child dies?  We'll find out from Dennis Apple today.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I had someone come up to me at one of our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences a number of years ago and shared a statistic with me that I've never been able to substantiate the statistic, but this person said somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of couples who experience the death of a child, their marriage does not last; that the mortality rate for marriage following the death of a child is astronomical. 

Now, again, I don't know if that's an exact number, but I do know that the subject we're dealing with this week, it does put a strain on a relationship that is profound.

Dennis Rainey: It does, and we're about to hear more of a story that we started earlier from a couple who really endured what is the ultimate tragedy, the loss of a son.  Dennis Apple joins us again on our broadcast.  Dennis, welcome back.

Dennis Apple: Thank you, good to be here.

Dennis Rainey: Dennis, I think, has a unique perspective on this subject, Bob, because he's a pastor at the College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas.  He and his wife have two sons, one of whom died February 6, 1991, with no explanation for why he died.  He went to sleep one night and was having some difficulty breathing and the next day you were going to leave on a ski trip, and you went near, and he had stopped breathing and had died during the night.  And the autopsy didn't reveal any cause of death – that was your son, Denny.

Dennis Apple: That's right.

Dennis Rainey: You write about your marriage in your book and, Dennis, I want to say about your book, "Life After the Death of my Son, What I'm Learning."  I just appreciate the no-veneer approach. This is about as gritty as it gets in tackling just a series of questions.  It's – you know, of – like, the first one is, "Will it always hurt this much?"  You know, that's Chapter 1.  The second chapter is, "Will our marriage survive this?" 

You describe your marriage in this chapter as though you were going home every day to a funeral parlor but without a dead body in the house.

Dennis Apple: That's right.

Dennis Rainey: Was it that morose at your place?

Dennis Apple: It certainly was, and that first year – he died in February, and then as the year went on, it got worse.  Our remaining son had made plans prior to his brother's death to be a foreign exchange student.  He was going to go to France.  And so he left in July, so I'd go home, and I would keep my life busy.  I mean, I think after the first two or three weeks or so, I dried up my tears.  As a man, I felt like I had to suck it up, I had to –you know, somebody's got to make the money and protect and take care of things, so I'm going to keep going.

Looking back, I see where I kept my day just filled with busy-ness.  I mean, e-mails, fax, just all sorts of noise – radio – when I was in the car alone, I'd keep – I just couldn't stand silence, Dennis, I mean, just absolutely could not.  So my busy-ness was a way to keep myself sane, to keep going.

Dennis Rainey: At that point, you'd been married how many years?

Dennis Apple: Well, let's see, we'll soon be married 44 years, so 17 from 44, do the math on that.

Dennis Rainey: Twenty-seven years of marriage – I mean, you had the silver.

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah, we did.  We were there.  We had a great family life, a great marriage, but I couldn't fix my wife.

Dennis Rainey: We process suffering differently, don't we?

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah.

Dennis Rainey: Barbara and I went through – nothing like what you're talking about – but Barbara nearly died early in our marriage because of a rapid heart rate, and I was astounded at how I wanted to flip a switch and move on.  But how my wife – there were no switches to flip.  She was processing, and she wanted to process and process and talk, and it was the better part of a year for her to go through that.

You experienced five years of deep grief as a couple – you, completely denying it; your wife, completely being swamped by it.

Dennis Apple: Yes, yes, exactly, and I recall going to a conference – some of the funeral directors had brought in a so-called expert, and he had taught at Harvard, and so forth, and I listened to him.  I soaked up everything he said, and he talked about how men and women grieve and mourn, and even there made a distinction between grief and mourning.  We use grief in a very generic way, but he pointed out that grief, heavy grief, is like a rock tied around your heart.  It's a crushing down of the spirit.

Mourning, on the other hand, is when you put on the outside what's on the inside.  So the crying, the sad body language, the depressed look – all of that is the mourning.

Dennis Rainey: It's translated outward.

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah.

Dennis Rainey: And you seeing that from your wife.

Dennis Apple: Oh, yeah.  And when the difference between men and women, what you see, I think, in North America, and we were true of this in our case, women mourn but men replace, and that's what I was doing.  I've talked to a lot of men through the years who, like me, want to get this – "Let's get this behind us, let's move on to what's next," and so they'll jump back into their work or get into some hobby.

I remember when I was at my lowest point, and I said to my wife, I said, "Now I see now why people, not just men" – and this happens with women, too – "do drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, buying – you'd do most anything to get out of this horrible pain that you're in."

And so my drug of choice was work – if I could just keep myself busy, I didn't have to think about it.  I'd get up in the morning, and on the way to the office I'd have music going in the car, everything going, all day long just one thing after another.  And I'd go home, and there she's be – hair everywhere, crying, puffy eyes, and I thought, "What are we" – I'd take her out to eat, sit across from her at the restaurant and see the tears drip off her chin.  I couldn't fix her.  Waitresses would give me dirty looks, you know, "What have you done to her." 

Bob: And, of course, I guess she was not even really aware that you were stuffing down all of the emotion, keeping that repressed.  She was figuring that you'd kind of gotten on with life and wondering why you're not feeling it the way she is?

Dennis Apple: Oh, I think so, yeah, I think so.  As a matter of fact, in the book, there's a couple of journal entries from her and, boy, you'll see, I mean, she was mad at me, and I was with her, and I mentioned in the book how we'd be in the house in this condition that I just described, and the doorbell would ring.  Here would be a Girl Scout selling cookies, and my wife has always had a soft place in her heart for Girl Scouts, she was one herself.  She'd go to the door and have the money ready and put on this smile, her public smile, and she would pay the girl, you know, and she'd turn around and give me that awful-looking – and I just – there were times, Bob, when I wanted to grab her by the shoulders.  I never did this, thank God – I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her and say, "Why don't you give me a little bit of what you just gave the Girl Scout?"  Or what you did in public?

And I was just so angry that I could not fix her.  And every time I saw that sad face of hers, it was like looking into the casket or looking into a grave.  It reminded me of something that I was trying so hard to forget.

Bob: Did you think to yourself, "I want out of this?"

Dennis Apple: Oh, yes.  Oh, yeah.  I thought, "How can we go on?"  Well, you know, I'd already, by that – as we were into a couple of years, I thought, "Man, we'll never have Christmas again, we'll never have joy, we'll never have laughter, we'll never enjoy ourselves again.  Why should we go on?"

And then all around I would see people – where marriages had come apart because of the death of a child, and it's easy, as you said, Dennis, at the outset, it's easy to think that because you see so many families that are coming apart, it's easy to think that the divorce rate is so high when, in fact, it really isn't.  And I mentioned in the book, I reference a study or two that points to the fact that bereaved couples, it only comes down to about 12 percent of those that advantage, exactly.

Bob: Is that right?  So the statistic that I heard, the 80 to 90 percent of couples coming apart is a myth?

Dennis Apple: That's right, it is.

Bob: So why do we think it's as high as it is, or why did this couple presume that it's in the 80 to 90 percent?  Is it because we see couples in crisis and just figure they're not going to make it?  What's going on?

Dennis Apple: Yeah, I don't know all that goes into that thinking, but you do – you see couples that way, and when you're in it yourself, from my side of it, it is sure easy, it certainly is easy to think, "Oh, yeah," because it would be so much easier to walk away, because I didn't want to be around her when she was that way.  I did not want to just continue to be in this sad state all the time.

Dennis Rainey: Yeah, I want to read a couple of your journal entries that you write about in your book – this is like six weeks after your son died, you write, "I took Beulah out for breakfast and tried to cheer her up.  She is so sad and cries often.  I don't know what to do.  I mourn differently than she does, and yet I feel she expects me to cry and be depressed like she is.  I don't know – maybe I'm not in touch with my own feelings.  I'm disturbed today because Beulah and I seem to be more apart emotionally than we've been in a long time.  I'm not sure why except that we're handling this whole thing differently.  Perhaps tomorrow will be different."

Bob: And then Beulah, at about the same time, is writing, "The pain continues.  I don't feel like Dennis loves me anymore.  I've lost him, too.  I've lost everyone and everything.  Life will never be happy again.  Dennis likes to criticize me.  Lord, I know I deserve it."

I mean, that's a picture of the kind of home that nobody wants to live in.

Dennis Apple: No, it was the pits.  There's just no way to describe how awful that was.

Bob: Was there ever serious entertaining of divorce?

Dennis Apple: No, not to the point where, you know, serious meetings, you know, I'm going to get a lawyer, she's going to get a lawyer, and we're going to do that.  No.  But we were in the neighborhood by way of thinking, "How can we exist?  How can we go on?  I mean, life has got to be better than this." 

The pain was so deep in our home, in our hearts, that we just – it was just almost too much to try to go through those days.

Dennis Rainey: Dennis, I'm not exactly sure how to really ask this question, because it's an intensely personal one – but when Barbara and I went through, again, what was nothing like what you and your wife went through – for a period of months, there was no romance.  I mean, there was no room in our souls for the rekindling of a spark between us.  It was just two people hanging onto God and hanging onto one another.

What you went through with your wife, Beulah, was so much more difficult.  Was that true of you guys as well?

Dennis Apple: Oh, yes.  Man, was it ever.  It's hard for me to recall much of any sort of romance in those days. We were just bombed out shelters.  I mean, we were just trying to make it, we were hanging on.  And I think it was the feeling that a lot of people think, "Oh, you two must have really gotten close together, it must have brought you" – no.

Dennis Rainey: Well, actually, in your book you describe your son's death like – and these are your words – "a dirty wedge that had been driven between you?"

Dennis Apple: Yeah, and I reach for things to try to describe it, Dennis, but that's the way I look at it. It was not our fault, of course, it wasn't.  We didn't – nobody was looking for this, but it was just a wedge driving us farther and farther apart.

Bob: There are some folks who are listening who are in the midst of their own dark night.  They are in the same place you've been.

Dennis Rainey: It may not be the loss of a child.

Bob: No, but home is a dark place.  It may be a wife who is depressed and morose, and the husband is trying to fix her, and he can't, or it may be a wife in that place who thinks, "Why can't my husband understand?  Why can't he be sensitive?  He doesn't love me anymore," the things your wife was expressing.  And I know the old expression is time heals all wounds.  Is that what you tell them – just hang in and persevere, and it will get better?  Or are there things they can do to help themselves get better?

Dennis Apple: Well, yes, I do think there are some things, and one of the things we did was to go to support group meetings; be around other couples who have lost a child.  I mentioned in the book that in those days what turned us off was filled with smoke, and I just couldn't handle that, and yet at the church, my job description was changing somewhat, and I moved more into recovery and support groups.

It's interesting – I guess my wife and I are a little different when I talked about the difference between men and women.  She would not go to church with me to be in a support group.  I went.  I'd started a lot of the groups and was in there not only as a leader but as a person who needed it more than anyone.  And so many times, on Thursdays, when we'd have these groups, I would take off, and she would be at home.

It wasn't until later I found out she would – my wife keeps a very fine home, and she waxes her floors nearly every week, and so she likes to get down and just – her kitchen floor, she would scrub that floor.  She'd crank up the sound system so nobody could hear her screams from the sidewalk, and she would be on the floor, washing and waxing the floor, screaming under the guise of that music.  Nobody could hear her screams.  That way the neighbors wouldn't call the police, and that's what she did in those early days.

Now she goes with me.  She helps me conduct groups, but in those early days, that was just the difference in us.  I could get into a group, and I could pour out a lot of my pain, and it's kind of funny, I could do it more easily sometimes with a group like that than I could with her.  And I think that goes back to the fact I thought I had to be strong for her.  I couldn't show my vulnerability and weakness, and there were times that I did, and when I did that with her, oh, she loved it.  Man, she just – oh, you know, she'd be smiling after she saw me go through a good cry.

Dennis Rainey: Interesting.  You know, in your book, you give it a very descriptive phrase.  You call it, kind of, a "dance of grief."

Dennis Apple: Yes.

Dennis Rainey: That you learned how to dance with each other.

Dennis Apple: Yeah.

Dennis Rainey: But I want to read to you what you said – you said, "It hadn't always been 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 could help one another.  Other times, we simply couldn't.  It's called 'commitment.'"  Commitment – it was commitment that gave you the ability to dance.

Dennis Apple: That's right.

Dennis Rainey: What would you say to the couple right now who are missing one another, and they're not dancing?

Dennis Apple: Boy, I would say go back and visit that word "commitment," and stay with each other and agree there are times when you'll be able to help one another and just understand that, and other times you will not.  But respect your differences, your grieving styles.  You may be able to talk about it, you may be able to go to groups, you may be able to talk about it with one another, but in those early years, it's so sensitive.  Now we can stay up, and we can talk about Denny.  I can look at his picture, and she can, and we can do things that we couldn't do back then.

But it's really hard to tell you exactly what to do, but I would say to stay with one another and respect your differences of grieving but hang in there, one with the other.

Dennis Rainey: Bob mentioned earlier, the phrase time heals all wounds.  There was a point in your marriage relationship where the dance became easier.

Dennis Apple: That's right.

Dennis Rainey: And it was a choice, interestingly, not that you made but that she made.

Dennis Apple: Yeah, it really was.  It was in November, it was the November before we would have marked the fifth year.  She will tell you this – that she came to the place where she asked herself the question, "Am I going to continue to live like this or am I going to try to go on and make a happy life for my family?"  Beulah, if she were sitting here, she would tell you this and, of course, you know, I'm sitting here wondering, "Well, why couldn't she do that after two years or three years or even six months."  But she was not capable, she was not ready, she had not come to that place, and it takes as long as it takes, and I know that sounds real simple, but she had to drain that cup of sorrow, and she really did.  She had to come to that place and, interestingly, and it kind of parallels my journaling, because that's about the time I lifted the pin and didn't feel any longer the need to continue my journaling.  It's almost to the day when we both came to that point.

Dennis Rainey: She decided she was going to have a different kind of marriage and family, moving forward, and you recognize that and immediately embraced her in that dance?

Dennis Apple: That's right, mm-hm, yes, certainly did.  And it wasn't like throwing a switch, but there was a time in there as we faced Christmas together, we decided – she did – that she was going to try to make this a happier time.

Bob: Five years later?

Dennis Apple: Yes, five years, almost five years.

Bob: So the person who is thinking, "I'm in year one," I mean, there are folks who are thinking, "I don't know that I can go five years like this.  I don't know that I can endure."

Dennis Apple: Yeah, I know, and that happens to be the very first chapter in my book – "How Much Time?"  I had no idea, Bob, how long it would take to reconcile myself or even with her, too, how long would it take to reconcile ourselves to this loss?  I had pastored, I've already asked God to forgive me for all the silly things I said way back there, but I had no idea how long it takes, and I think that's one of the hopes that I have in this book that will help people to understand and to be patient with those who are out there grieving.  It's going to take much longer than you could ever dream or imagine.

Bob: And it takes as long as it takes.

Dennis Apple: It takes as long as it takes.

Dennis Rainey: And God does not ask you to live five years at once.

Dennis Apple: No, that's right.

Dennis Rainey: He gives you a day at a time, a step at a time, and I want to read a passage I read earlier – 1 Peter, chapter 4, verse 19 – "Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good."  There are some great words in there.  Don't quit, don't retract your commitment, don't bail out and go somewhere else thinking you're going to find life in someone or something else but entrust your soul to your Creator, there's a God who understands and keep on doing good.  What a great mantra, what a great way to live in the midst of tragedy regardless of what you're facing.

Bob: Well, and at the same time that you do that, you deal openly and honestly with what's really going on in your heart and in your soul.  I came across a review of your book online, Dennis, where a mom who said she's been where you were, said this is the first real book that I've read about the grief process that was right on the money.

Dennis Apple: Yes.

Bob: She said you give a very honest, straightforward report about what really happens to those who are suffering from the tragic loss of a child.  And we've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center that we are making available to our listeners.  You can go to our website,, and on the right side of the home page, there is a box that says "Today's Broadcast," and if you'll click where it says "Learn More," you'll wind up at the area of the site where we have information about Dennis's book and about other resources that are available from us here at FamilyLife for those who are going through the grieving process.

Again, our website is and look for the box that says "Today's Broadcast," or 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.  When you call, someone on our team will work things out so that we can have the book you need sent out to you.

While we've been dealing with this subject this week, we have also been encouraging listeners to contact us to request a CD that features a conversation we had not long ago, Dennis, with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, the host of the daily radio program, "Revive our Hearts."  She has written a book on the subject of forgiveness, and we talked with her about what God's Word has to say about forgiveness and how we apply that in difficult and, often, painful situations we face.

This week we are making that CD available to anyone who calls to request it.  So if you'd like to receive a copy of the CD with Nancy Leigh DeMoss on choosing forgiveness, let me encourage you to call 1-800-FLTODAY and request it – 1-800-358-6329, simply ask for a copy of the CD on forgiveness, and we're happy to send it out to you, and we trust God will use it, hopefully, to help restore some damaged relationships that may exist either in families or in the body of Christ.  We hope to hear from you.

Tomorrow we're going to continue our conversation with Dennis Apple.  We want to talk about what you do when you're dealing with your own grief and, at the same time, you need to, as a father, help your children walk through their grief.  We'll have that conversation tomorrow, I hope you can be back with for that.

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 next time 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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