On the fog of grief

A wonderful book by Dennis Apple, (a man I have never met, but my former neighbor & friend knows him well as a result of intense grief in her life) speaks beautifully on the subject of grief following the sudden death of his young son. After what my family has gone through since the beginning of the year I have learned that grief comes in many forms, and through many different circumstances. This excerpt from his book has so much to digest:

“WHERE IS GOD? 4/ 2/ 91 Tonight Buelah {his wife} asked the question that’s been bothering me for a long time: Does prayer really matter? Does God care about losses like this? Is He punishing us for something? I’m not sure of anything anymore. I simply don’t care! The most precious thing has been taken away from me, and I want to say to God, “OK—you win! Whatever you want, go ahead and take it. I don’t have the heart to care any more. There’s nothing left—go ahead and shoot me, too, if that’s what you want. You could have stopped this, but you didn’t. You let our precious son die, and here we are, empty-handed and broken.” If you go back and check the weather report for ZIP code 66062 on February 6, 1991, you’ll find that it was an extremely foggy morning. I noticed the dense, gray fog when I first awakened. I had no idea the fog would become symbolic of the deep spiritual fog I would soon enter.

The night before Denny died, Buelah and I knelt by the place where he was resting, laid our hands on his head, and prayed earnestly for his healing. As a pastor, I had done this countless times for people in hospitals, nursing homes, and in my office at the church. Since childhood, I had believed that prayer changes things and had listened to countless people witness to the answers they received in response to prayer. I had always trusted in 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. As I recall the events of that morning, I noticed the thick fog and could barely see the neighbor’s house as I looked out our bedroom window. I prepared a bowl of cereal and then checked on Denny. It was at that moment when I discovered he was not conscious, not breathing, and it wasn’t long until, as described earlier, it was obvious that he was gone. In that tragic moment I felt as though God had abandoned me, and I identified with Jesus’ words when He screamed out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27: 46). I would scream out those words several times in the days to come as the fog enveloped me and my family. I would never have said this out loud to anyone, but in my mind I had the mistaken idea that tragedies like this simply don’t happen to those of us who are ministers. I’m not quite sure where this notion came from, but I suppose it has something to do with the Old Testament story of the first Passover as found in Exodus 11-12. The children of Israel gained protection from the death angel as they placed the blood of the Passover lamb over their doors as instructed by Moses. The firstborn of all Egyptian families were slain on that fateful night, but the faithful Israelite families were safe. I thought we were safe too! Looking back, I have told others that I had the “Passover mentality” but realize now that being a minister does not exempt me from tragedy.

After serving nearly 40 years as a pastor, I’ve observed the different reactions of people just after they have experienced unexpected trauma in their lives. Some are drawn closer to God, and their faith is renewed as they move to a deeper level in their relationship with Him. On the other hand, there are just as many, if not more, who feel as though God has let them down when they needed help the most. Their cry, like mine, is “Why have you forsaken me?” My disillusion about the care and protection from God is very apparent as you read through my journal, especially the entry on March 9, 1991. It had been exactly one month since we had buried our son, so I made my way out to the cemetery alone. I stopped the car and walked the few feet to his grave. As I approached, I noticed a new grave. Someone else had been buried at the foot of Denny’s grave, and I immediately noticed that it was Rhoda’s grave. Rhoda was a sweet senior adult who died just days after Denny, but no one from the church office had notified me of her death. Perhaps they knew she was buried at my son’s feet, and they had compassion on me and kept her death from me. I knew her story and had been making pastoral calls on her for several weeks prior to her death. Years earlier she had been involved in a serious auto accident and, as a result, had to be given a blood transfusion in order to save her life. In those days there was only limited knowledge about HIV, and the screening procedures were very primitive compared to today. Many years after her accident, she was called by the Red Cross and asked to come in to their office so she could be tested for HIV. The results of the test revealed she had been given blood tainted by HIV. Over the years I visited her and watched as she grew weaker. I walked around both graves and thought about the unfairness of it all. 3/ 9/ 91 I stood by both graves, raised my fist in the air, and said, “Oh, God, you’ve got some explaining to do about this!” I was angry, confused, and doubted that God cared much about the innocent victims of these senseless tragedies and mistakes. I was still in shock, trying to understand all that had happened.

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about shock and what it felt like for me. I believe shock is a merciful thing God does for us when we experience the loss of someone we love. I compare it to the Novocain a dentist injects into a patient’s gum in preparation for treatment. The dentist is careful to numb the area so the patient feels no pain while the dentist does his or her work—usually with a drill. God protects us by placing us in deep shock when we experience tragedy. The length of time this shock lingers will vary from person to person, depending upon the circumstances of the death and the relationship with the deceased person. The “soul-numbing” effect of shock allows us to somehow make it through the planning of the funeral as well as the visitation and funeral ritual itself. Quite often the onlookers will observe the lack of emotion of a person in shock and exclaim, “Did you notice how well he [she] is doing? I didn’t see him [her] crying at all!” 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. Looking through my journal, I noticed it was between six and eight weeks when the shock began to wane and the full force of our loss began to hit us. My wife and I were still in a daze. We were trying to understand what had happened to us, trying to make sense of this overwhelming nightmare. As you can see from the journal entry above, it was almost one month after Denny’s death when she looked at me through her tears and asked the question I also had been asking myself: “Does prayer really matter?” We would struggle with that question for several years. In those early days, I was having a difficult time concentrating, but I found myself reaching for books such as Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God and Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I wanted desperately to know why this had happened. At the same time, I struggled in my attempts to read the Bible and finally came to discover that I, too, was disappointed and angry with God. This became obvious whenever I heard someone talking about their guardian angels. Beliefs I had previously held about God were now coming up for a vote once again. On several occasions I could barely contain my anger as I heard others discuss how they narrowly escaped being killed in an accident because their “guardian angels” were watching over and protecting them. 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? I was disgusted by their naive assumptions. I wanted to tell them that guardian angels were in the same category as Santa Claus and the Easter bunny.

As a pastor, I found myself in a spiritual dilemma. How could I continue my duties as pastor, trying to help others, when deep down I was strongly offended and feeling let down by a God who had seemingly ignored us in our time of deepest need? At first I decided to keep this spiritual dilemma a secret. I made my way through each day by performing the duties that were expected of me, visiting those in hospitals and nursing centers, counseling troubled persons in my office, performing funerals and weddings. In short, I was trying to minister to others but also attempting to deal with the question my wife had posed to me about whether or not prayer really matters. I held that question in my mind as I journeyed through those months—even years. Looking back, I call this my time of desert wanderings, and I’ve noticed that many other grievers go through this as well. To my way of thinking at the time, God had walked away from me, and I felt like an abandoned child. Dust formed on my Bible, and my faith was at an all-time low. I prayed only when it was expected of me, and I often walked out of hospital rooms after praying for the sick, wondering if God truly had an interest in the well-being of the person I had just prayed for or if this was simply a waste of everyone’s time. I’ve told others that at that time I felt like an offended child who had just quarreled with his father and announced he was leaving home. However, after packing the suitcase and opening the back door to leave, the child suddenly realizes he has no place to go. I felt as though I was hanging out near the back door of my faith. Everything felt dull, dead, lifeless. While others seemed to enjoy life in high-definition color, mine was like the steady rain on a gray tombstone at midnight. I had no direction, no ambition, and I didn’t care. Once in a while someone would ask me what I was experiencing and what it was like to grieve so hard. I thought about it and tried to come up with adjectives that could help describe this horror to them. I tried telling them, but there were no words to describe this sort of tragedy. The best I could compare it to was to say that it might be as if I were an astronaut on a spacewalk all alone while others were safe in the mother ship. When an astronaut goes for a space walk, he or she is always tethered to the mother ship by a cord that supplies the oxygen and electrical power needed for the tasks and well-being of the astronaut. I felt as though I was on a spacewalk and found myself without the umbilical cord connecting me to the mother ship. I was floating aimlessly in space. This continued for years, and I felt as though God was gone from me forever. The words of Job after he had lost everything seemed true for me: “If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him” (Job 23: 8-9). I was alone with my questions. I didn’t know that God was doing severe work on my soul while I was still in the fog. In the spring of 1993, just two years into my grief journey, I was still struggling and simply trying to exist. The local hospital was offering a special hospice training course for ministers and chaplains, and I decided to take advantage of this training. It was a huge mistake. I sat and listened to stories of people dying and how to help them in their final days, and I left the training with more anxiety than I had before, but I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. I returned to my office and tried to help out with the upcoming Easter pageant. It was a large production that required the work of more than 500 people. Every staff member was expected to help, and I had taken on the job of coordinating the shuttle bus drivers as well as the traffic directors, all of whom worked outside the church sanctuary. It was simply too much for me to go into the sanctuary and watch the scenes portraying the death of God’s Son. When I heard the music and watched the drama, all I could think about was the death of my own son, so I chose to work outdoors and stay clear of those reminders.

On this particular day, April 7, 1993, I needed to talk with a university student who was helping me coordinate the workers outside. When I called and tried to reach him, I was told he was in choir practice and that the choir was practicing in the main sanctuary. I was told he would be available at the conclusion of choir practice at 1: 30 P.M. I waited until 1: 15 and made my way over to the sanctuary with a very heavy heart. I walked in through a back door and sat in the shadows, under the balcony. The choir was assembled off to the side, and neither the choir nor the director had noticed my slipping in one of the back doors to hear them finish up. The front of the church looked like something from the set of Universal Studios. Artists had been at work for several weeks, assembling huge decorative screens and sets in order to give the appropriate background and tell the story of the last week of Christ’s life. I sat there alone in the darkness, wondering if it was all a farce! I thought the choir had come to the end of its practice, and a quick look at my watch told me it was time for practice to conclude. However, the director had said to the choir, “I know we’re about out of time, but I want you to go over one more song before we dismiss.” I didn’t pay much attention to the song he had selected and was impatient that he was holding the students beyond the allotted time. As I fidgeted in my seat and wished he would hurry, the pianist played a strong introduction. Then I heard the first notes of the choir as they nearly shouted, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you!” These opening words shot across the sanctuary like an F-16 fighter jet making a low pass. The atmosphere suddenly changed. I knew immediately that God had placed me in this location for a special reason, and in a sanctuary that seated almost 4,000, I sat alone as a congregation of one. God had my full attention. I knew from years of Bible study that when God wants to say something important, He always begins with “fear not.” The lyrics were taken from Isaiah 43: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God…. You are precious and honored in my sight, and … I love you…. Do not be afraid, for I am with you (vv. 1-5). When they finished singing, there was a holy hush in the sanctuary, and I was almost afraid to breathe. God had just spoken to me, and I felt as if I should remove my shoes—I was on holy ground. I sat for several minutes, holding my white handkerchief to my eyes, wiping away the tears. Things were different now. Until this moment I had felt abandoned by God—alone in a fog of grief and suffering. Through this choir and His own words, God had revealed His love and concern for me. I felt Him saying to me, I know where you are and what you’re going through. I want you to know that I love you and that I am with you. God was with me! The knowledge that God was with me made all the difference in the world! David, in Ps. 23, wrote it and I had read it a thousand times: “for you are with me” (v. 4). I now had a personal confirmation at a time when I needed it most. God was indeed with me. This life-changing experience reminded me of the experience Isaiah had with God at a pivotal moment in his life. Isaiah experienced the presence of God in the midst of his grief after King Uzziah died. I had preached a number of sermons from this passage, but since Denny’s death I now see it in a different light. Isaiah had entered the Temple at a very low time in his life. The opening words of Isa. 6: 1 speak to me: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, seated on a throne.” It is believed the prophet Isaiah was a cousin to King Uzziah, so the untimely death of the king caused Isaiah to experience a deep sense of loss. When the Lord appeared to the prophet, everything changed, and it was in effect a time of commissioning for Isaiah. God asked, “Whom shall I send? And who shall go for us?” Isaiah obediently responded by saying, “Here am I. Send me” (v. 8). This experience, while not on the same level as Isaiah’s experience, was something of a call for me, and my ministry began to take a new turn. People were approaching me for guidance and counsel. In the days ahead I became more open about my doubts and questions, about my internal pain and homesickness for my son. As I shared this pain with others in the church, a new ministry opened to me. As one of my colleagues said to me one day, “Dennis, I believe God is using you to teach our church how to grieve.”

This holy experience was taking me in a new spiritual direction. However, I still had the questions about prayer in my mind: “Does God really care about our prayers? Does prayer really make a difference?” I pondered this for several more months and tried to gain more understanding. 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 the unjust. In the midst of my spiritual dilemma about prayer, I came to a crossroads and asked myself two questions: Do I believe there’s a sovereign God who knows and sees all, including my suffering over the loss of our son? Am I going to trust in this sovereign God whom I don’t always understand? I pondered these questions for a long time and finally came to the place in which I said through my tears, “Yes, I believe in Him, and yes, I will trust Him.” These days, when I pray for something or someone, I’m trying to follow the teachings and example of our Savior, Jesus. I follow His instructions in Matt. 7: 7 to ask, seek, and knock. However, I’m keenly aware He prayed earnestly, even three times, for the cup of suffering to be removed. Eventually He came to a place, as we all must, where He bowed at the altar of God’s will: *“Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22: 42). After my Isa. 43 experience with God in the sanctuary, gradually the questions I had asked previously didn’t seem so important any more. Our great God had noticed my pain, my suffering, and used a choir to communicate this wonderful truth to me. I was not alone! I still felt as though I was in the dense fog, but I knew I was not alone any longer. Driving a car in the fog can be tricky, and there are a few things you need to remember. First, drive slowly and keep your headlights on low beam. Another trick I’ve learned is to pay attention to the white line on the right side of the road. That line is a reference point that will keep me on the road and in the correct lane. When it comes to the fog of grief, the rules are similar: go slowly and give yourself plenty of time. Keep your eyes trained on the lines that have served you well in the past. 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.”

Life After Death by Dennis Apple

*just in case you’re wondering, God didn’t cause this tragedy, that is never His will.


About along the journey

public private ramblings - myfullemptynest
This entry was posted in Empty Nest, Grief, Grieving, Health, Heartbreak, Spirituality, Tragedy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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